It’s good to be a spinner in this IPL

I don’t like Sharjah. There. I said it. Sure, it’s where some of my first cricketing memories were created, when Sachin helped us discover the field of our dreams, and Shane Warne’s nightmares. Sharjah is special, and will always be. But this IPL 2020, I don’t like it. There are too many sixes. The bowlers aren’t in the game as much as I would like. I am a bowler, after all.

Using Google Earth’s excellent ruler function, and some back-of-the-envelope calculations (there’s an hour I have no regrets about), I put numbers on something I knew: Sharjah isn’t very different from most grounds the IPL is usually played on. It’s close to the Wankhede and Chinnaswamy stadiums in size, and the Chidambaram and Ferozshah Kotla are only slightly bigger. But the reason Sharjah is standing out this season, is the size of the other two grounds: the boundaries are (approximately) five metres longer in Dubai, and some are close to 10 metres longer in Abu Dhabi, comfortably bigger than all Indian IPL grounds.

And these dimensions mean spin is playing a big role in this IPL, even as early as the third week, where we have pitches starting to slow down. The early grass on the surfaces, left in to help the pitches last, has been flattened, and there is some grip and turn on offer for those who can put revs on a dry ball. And when the pitch for the day is off centre, uneven dimensions have given the spinners plenty of room to play with.

What has ensued is common sense cricket, more complicatedly referred to as match-ups. All bowlers have used these, but in the middle overs, spinners have been especially successful. Slower while attacking, and faster while defending, and all in their own style. Yuzvendra Chahal can vary his speed by 15-20 kmph. Others like Axar Patel and Washington Sundar play around in the 80s, while Rashid Khan is a 90s kid, literally as well as figuratively. These five are also the most economical spinners so far, making up half the top 10 (minimum two matches). Axar and Sundar have incredible economy rates, under five, despite often being used in the difficult overs.

But most fascinating has been how these spinners have not simply used the conditions, but have also raised the innovation game. Krunal Pandya does imitations of his teammates: now he’s Trent Boult, firing down wide yorkers at pace, and now he’s Lasith Malinga, slinging it from shoulder height. Ravi Bishnoi and Rahul Chahar might want to stay away from speeding cars, seeing as how they can’t seem to walk in a straight line. Narine can hide the ball behind his body in his run up, something we are yet to see here. Ashwin is bringing out his leg spin, Axar is working on a carrom ball, and I swear I’ve seen Abhishek Sharma bowl a knuckle ball. Washington Sundar is doing none of the above and still once went an entire game without being hit for a boundary, even with three overs bowled in the Powerplay (this deserves an article to itself). And we still haven’t seen the talents of Mujeeb Ur Rahman or Sandeep Lamichhane.

Happy hunting grounds have reduced the gulf between wrist spinners and finger spinners; even spinners who can’t turn the ball both ways are thriving. The key has been control, both of pace and direction, allowing captains to shut down certain areas of the field. Krunal’s fist pump, after successfully executing a wide yorker against Glen Maxwell—blocking his hoick to leg—shows how the parameters for success have changed: it’s not just about wickets or runs, it’s about treating each ball like a set play and executing as per plan.

The IPL’s trek to the UAE means that days where you can mishit spin for six are limited to the 12 games in Sharjah. This margin has allowed spinners to experiment. But it will also have a few knock off effects: fast bowlers will be attacked more, and therefore, have higher economy rates and more wickets. What it also means that batsmen will be challenged, and the cream will rise to the top. Watch out for Shubman Gill, with that ridiculously high control percentage.

Let’s end by looking at Rahul Tewatia and Varun Chakravarthy. One does a lot, and the other does a little, but there’s room for both in this IPL. You can be an all-phase trick bowler, or a simple single use specialist, brought in for one particular match up on one particular ground (Remember Jayant Yadav for Mumbai Indians last year?) Expect to see more such moves this time around. It’s a good year to be a spinner.

Snehal Pradhan is a former India cricketer, commentator and writer.


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