When the Indian Premier League moves to the UAE, it would be the first time three venues will be staging 60 matches in 53 days. The only other occasion an entire IPL edition was held overseas before this was in 2009 in South Africa, where eight venues shared the workload. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah were entrusted with IPL duties in 2014, but then they had hosted only 20 matches. At home, IPL is played at the home grounds of eight franchises, and sometimes a few additional ones as well. The match share per venue goes down even more in ICC events.
At the 2019 World Cup, 48 matches were spread across 11 venues in the United Kingdom. In the 2016 World Twenty20, seven Indian venues were used for 35 matches. Will the limited UAE pitches be able to bear the load of so many matches in so few days?
Preoccupied with securing government permissions and formulating Standard operating Procedures (SOP) for the IPL, the BCCI hasn't been able to give this much thought, according to an official involved with the staging of the league. But it will become a talking point as the competition progresses says PR Viswanathan, who was in UAE during the 2014 IPL as BCCI curator.
"It's not just the 60 matches, you will have to accommodate some practice matches too, even after factoring in other smaller grounds where practice games can be played," Viswanathan said. "So, it will be some 70 matches across three venues. That's a lot.
"The weather there is very harsh. There is lot of dust accumulation and high clay content in the soil, so it's difficult to produce a hard wicket there," added Viswanathan, who is now retired. "You won't get too many 200-plus scores."
The scores compiled in the UAE leg of the 2014 IPL back this; there were only two 200-plus totals, both in the same match. Other than that, there were nine 170-plus totals and 12 160-plus totals in 40 innings (20 matches). That was six years back, but even in the last Pakistan Super League (PSL) played in UAE in 2018-19, there were no 200-plus totals. The 2019 IPL saw eleven innings that went above 200.
Teams like Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), who alone put up four of those 200 plus totals last year, and Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB -- three 200 plus totals in 2019) may need to rethink their match strategies. More importantly, the home advantage will be lost.
"It's true that every franchise picks teams based on home conditions during auctions. When that changes, it becomes challenging. When IPL is played at home, you play seven (away) games in conditions you are not used to; now you will play 14 such games," said Abhishek Nayar, member of KKR support staff.
This could be a low-scoring IPL, but as the final last year showed, that's not necessarily a bad thing if it allows an even contest.
"With the heat, you may see low scoring games in the latter half of the IPL. And if the nature of the wicket is slow, it's very difficult to make it faster or flatter," Nayar said.
From his experience as a Rajasthan Royals player in 2014, Nayar's reading of UAE pitches is this: the Dubai pitch is mostly slow, Abu Dhabi can be juicy and Sharjah is as flat as a well-ironed shirtfront. That Abu Dhabi has some bounce was pointed out by Rohit Sharma as well.
"Fair bit of grass on the wicket, there was a bit of bounce. Odd balls were stopping and coming so it wasn't true," was Sharma's analysis of the Abu Dhabi pitch after the first IPL match in 2014. The pitch at Sharjah, which carries a legacy of high-scoring encounters on shiny flat decks through the 90's, was relaid in 2013. Subsequently, on occasions, the wicket takes turn as Yuzvendra Chahal found out in 2014. "I got confidence seeing the first ball turn," Chahal had said playing in what was only his second IPL game, for Royal Challengers Bangalore against Delhi Daredevils. "Sharjah is the closest to Eden, but it does not have the lateral movement that we get at Kolkata. Everyone will have to make adjustments," said Nayar.
Former Australian cricketer turned commentator Dean Jones, who also coaches a team in the Pakistan Super League, has a fair bit of experience with UAE pitches. "The major concern for all the teams would be that with so much cricket being played on all three venues, the pitches will get tired and that's only natural," Jones said. "So, it might come down to who plays spin better. Some teams might pick three spinners and only two quicks. At the start the pitches will be great to bat on but there is no doubt that they will get tired as the tournament goes on."
Former head of BCCI's pitch committee Daljit Singh feels the role of BCCI observers will be key. "I have been to UAE, and one thing I observed they do wrong, is heavy rolling despite the hot weather. We should definitely have our curators to oversee pitch preparations," Singh said.
Viswanathan feels there should be more than one observer stationed there.
"Once the tournament began, I was of not much help as there was a lot of travel between venues. All the work that needs to be done is between matches, not on match day. You don't want someone using a heavy roller to kill the grass. A lot of man management skills will be needed," he said.