What makes T20 cricket in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) interesting is the variety of playing conditions at the three venues: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. That also makes it challenging for captains, coaches, and selectors to make the right calls.
Dubai offers pace, bounce, and swing to the new ball bowlers. This was evident when the Indian Premier League (IPL) resumed there last month. Chennai Super Kings (CSK) opted to bat first and lost four wickets cheaply, while one batsman retired hurt, in the face of Mumbai Indians’ (MI) pace battery. The trend has continued with a number of wickets falling to the new ball, even after conditions eased out.
Strokemakers have also sparkled at the venue, since the ball comes on to the bat, unlike at Abu Dhabi. Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) discovered how different Abu Dhabi can be, where they were bowled out for 92 by Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). Mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy revelled in the conditions, but seamers too have been hard to play as the ball tends to brake and deviate on pitching.
Swing and seam bowlers have taken more wickets, but spinners too have enjoyed bowling on the large grounds in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. At these venues, it’s not so easy to clear the boundary with lofted hits, even with the power-packed bats being wielded. That makes Sharjah the odd one out with its cricket ground being tiny in comparison to the other two venues.
But unlike at Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the pitch at Sharjah is shorn of grass and can produce sharp spin. There were a number of low-scoring games in the second half of the IPL there last year, and this time around leg-spinner Ravi Bishnoi enabled Punjab Kings (PK) to defend a score of 125 against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH). But spinners can also go for sixers on this small ground, whereas medium-pacers with variations have been hard to collar.
The pace and bounce of Dubai, the tackiness of the Abu Dhabi pitch, and the spin and ground dimensions in Sharjah present a jigsaw puzzle for team selection and tactics. This assumes more significance as the T20 World Cup will be played at these same venues right after the IPL concludes. The World Cup squads had to be announced by 10 September, but selectors do have till 10 October to tweak their teams. They would do well to read the tea leaves from the ongoing IPL games and make alterations if required.
India’s selectors have loaded the team with five spinners—left-arm spinners Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, leg-spinner Rahul Chahar, mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy, and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin—in the hope that wear and tear on the UAE pitches will make them more spin-friendly by the time the World Cup comes around next month. But it means the 15-man squad has only three pace bowlers in Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. That’s asking for trouble.
What makes the lopsided selection harder to understand is that India is scheduled to play all its group stage matches in Dubai, barring one game in Abu Dhabi against Afghanistan. The final and one of the semi-finals are also in Dubai. It’s a venue where pace bowlers have struck early blows with the new ball. That’s been the case so far this season, continuing a trend we saw when the IPL was first played in the UAE in 2020.
It’s unlikely to change drastically when India play their first 2021 T20 World Cup game on 24 October, against Pakistan. India’s arch rivals have the six-foot-six-inch Shaheen Shah Afridi and two other six-foot fast bowlers, Haris Rauf and Mohammad Hasnain, along with experienced medium pacer Hasan Ali. Bumrah and Shami have been amongst wickets too in Dubai and they will test the Pakistani batters. But to have Bhuvneshwar Kumar as the sole option as a third specialist seamer appears to put India at a disadvantage.
Kumar has been mostly clocking below 130 kmph since returning from an injury. He was at his best when his ability to swing the ball both ways was tough to handle at speeds in the high 130s. One of the reasons why SRH is languishing at the bottom of the IPL table is that their star bowler is currently a shadow of his former self.
There were several worthy contenders for Kumar’s slot. Mohammad Siraj has been consistently crossing 140 kmph. He is now an experienced and confident bowler after his exploits in Tests in Australia and England this year. The swing of Deepak Chahar and variations of Shardul Thakur have helped put CSK at the top of the IPL table. Avesh Khan of Delhi Capitals (DC) is one of the top wicket-takers this IPL season, having developed into an intelligent bowler under coach Ricky Ponting and the South African pace duo of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje.
So it isn’t as though India is bereft of choices in the pace department and the selectors’ hands were forced in picking Kumar. The availability of all-rounder Hardik Pandya might have influenced them, but he’s another player who is on the mend after a long injury layoff.
The selectors also went too far in favour of spinners. It’s hard to see two left-arm spinners, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, playing in the same game unless the pitch is a rank turner. This is an unlikely prospect in Dubai for the World Cup. However impressive Patel has been, this year, he could have made way for a pacer.
If India do make changes to the squad before 10 October, depending on how the pitch is playing in Dubai and the form of players in the IPL, we could well have the inclusion of two pace bowlers in place of a spinner and the struggling Kumar. That would put India in pole position for the match against Pakistan on 24 October as well as in the following game, on 31 October, at the same venue against New Zealand.
As for the batting lineup, the glaring omission is that of Shikhar Dhawan. He is a leading run-scorer in the current leg of the IPL and had made a good fist of it in the last season as well. Under Ponting’s guidance, his run rate has improved along with consistency. If you talk of horses for courses, he should have been a shoo-in to accompany his old partner Rohit Sharma, returning to the left-right combination that served India well in past ICC tournaments.
Dhawan was unlucky to drop out of the 2019 One-Day International (ODI) World Cup after being hit on his fingers during a terrific knock against Australia. It appears he will miss out again despite being in prime form. Newcomers Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan forced their way into the team on the back of sterling performances, but they’ve both hit a lean trot. One of them could make way for the in-form and experienced Dhawan. It would mean KL Rahul dropping down the order to let Dhawan open, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing considering how adept he is against spin. Captain Virat Kohli’s seeming dip in confidence when it comes to attacking spinners in the middle overs makes it useful to have somebody like Rahul at the other end at No.4.
The selectors have shown their hand but it’s not too late for them to give Kohli a better chance to win a World Cup before he gives up the T20 captaincy.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.