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Will the T20 World Cup be won with the toss of a coin?

The games so far have been predictable with teams winning the toss, batting second and exploiting local conditions to win comfortably

New Zealand used conditions in Dubai to bowl first and have India on the ropes.
New Zealand used conditions in Dubai to bowl first and have India on the ropes. (ANI)

Teams batting second have won all seven games of the 2021 T20 World Cup Super 12 played in Dubai till 1 November, without a single exception, regardless of matchups. Six out of the seven games were totally one-sided affairs. The only one that went the distance was the Pakistan-Afghanistan match, where Pakistan needed 24 in the last two overs. Asif Ali then finished it with four sixes in a stunning 19th over.

Invariably the captain winning the toss has sent the opposition out to bat first and reaped the benefits. Again the only exception was Afghanistan, whose captain, Mohammad Nabi, blundered by choosing to bat first against Pakistan, despite seeing what happened to India five days earlier against the same opposition. While India huffed and puffed to 151 after losing three early wickets, Afghanistan were 76 for 6 before staging a partial recovery to reach 147. Neither score was enough with dew making the ground wet later in the evening— which made batting a piece of cake in the last 10 overs—while the ball became a bar of soap in the hands of bowlers. Pakistan nearly made a hash of the chase against Afghanistan but came through easily enough in the end. Dew did aid those four Asif Ali sixers.

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Afghanistan prefer to chase because their usual match-winners are the spinners led by Rashid Khan. On most grounds around the world, the ball grips the surface and spins a bit more as the pitch gets scuffed up during the course of the game. So Nabi thought he was playing to Afghanistan’s strength when he decided to ignore the results of previous matches. 

That was a big miscalculation because even spinners have enjoyed bowling first in Dubai. Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali of England took six wickets between them to demolish the West Indies. Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan of Pakistan, Adam Zampa of Australia, Ish Sodhi of New Zealand, and Keshav Maharaj of South Africa have similarly enjoyed taking wickets with spin on this wicket, bowling first. The pace bowlers are not the only demolishers with the new ball at the start of the game.

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The problem for teams batting first in evening games at this venue is two-fold. When matches get under way at 6pm local time, there’s bounce and seam movement off the grass on the wicket as well as swing in the early evening air. The spinners then get turn and bounce from the wicket, inducing mishit skiers that get caught in the deep on the large ground.

When it is their turn to bowl after batting first in these challenging conditions, teams suddenly find that the swing is gone and the ball goes sliding on to the bat in the cool night air as dew arrives. Towels come out as the spinners struggle to grip the ball after it gathers moisture on the damp ground. The bowling team is well-nigh helpless in the last 10 overs. 

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We have seen day-night games affected by dew becoming one-sided and predictable quite regularly in the winter months in the sub-continent. But to see it happening match after match at the main venue of a showcase event like the T20 World Cup is a huge let-down for aficionados of cricket. 

It’s not just the Super 12 matches that will continue to be affected in Dubai as winter sets in. This is also the staging ground for one of the semi-finals as well as the final. It will take a small miracle, a freak performance, or an implosion by the team winning the toss for the result to be anything other than expected. Unless it’s a mismatch between one of the eight major teams and one of the four qualifiers who made it to the Super 12 from the first round. But none of the four lesser teams—Scotland, Namibia, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka—appear to have any hopes of making it to the semi-finals.

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It’s not just Dubai that presents a tilted playing field, so to speak, at the T20 World Cup. At the Sheikh Zayed stadium in Abu Dhabi, which will stage one of the semi-finals, all but one result till 1 November went in favour of the team batting second. The one exception was Afghanistan beating Namibia, who had no clue how to handle the Afghan spinners. Besides, that was a day game in which dew does not come into the picture.

It’s not as if the dew factor could not be anticipated before the tournament. Teams playing there regularly, like Pakistan, know how much of an effect it has on evening games in the winter months. That was also in evidence in the Indian Premier League (IPL) just before the World Cup, although it was not as stark as this, because it was still autumn and the dew was mild.

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The International Cricket Council (ICC) should consider stipulating that only day games can be played at winter venues where dew has been seen regularly at nightfall. After all, one of the prerequisites for enjoying any contest is to come as close as possible to giving both sides an equal opportunity to win. That’s why you have home and away games in football.

It may not be practical to have two games between the same sides, with both teams getting one opportunity to bat first. The tournament would become too long, which wouldn’t do, especially in these pandemic times.

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As for playing only day games, the counterpoint is that it might affect viewership and the advertising revenue that drives the game. But the ICC has to balance that against the danger of declining interest from viewers if matches become too predictable. Gaining some advantage with the toss of a coin is understandable, but not to the extent we’ve seen in games so far. All seven games at the main venue and three out of four games at the venue for the second semi-final have gone in favour of the chasing team. The winner of the 2021 T20 World Cup title in these conditions will likely be the one that makes the right call when the coin goes up for the final.

Under the circumstances, what can the team batting first do in Dubai for the rest of the tournament? Go hell for leather on the slim chance that it comes off, so that a score of above 170 is posted. That could possibly be defended with smart bowling in spite of the dew. In that context, India cannot be faulted for switching their batting order against New Zealand, going for their shots, and falling to catches in the deep. That was probably the only option left for a team batting first in an evening game in Dubai. KL Rahul and Ishan Kishan played some blinders before the World Cup and India hoped one of them could produce a knock like that. It wasn’t to be. 

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An alternative tactic would be to see off the new ball and then hit out in the latter half of the innings. But the chances of that coming off seem equally slim, given the bounce and turn that leg-spinners are exploiting, apart from the wicket getting tackier and harder to score off —until the dew appears.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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