Rohit Sharma and Chennai Super Kings, MS Dhoni
File photo: Skippers of Mumbai Indians, Rohit Sharma and Chennai Super Kings, MS Dhoni. Image Credit: PTI

The IPL in the UAE is off the starting blocks. But there’s still a long way to go. More than 50 days. How will the T20 league pan out before it reaches its conclusion on November 10? Difficult to say, given the number of variables.

For the first time in 13 seasons, IPL will start and finish away from India due to COVID-19 – the pandemic that’s ravaging the world. And that itself makes a massive difference in terms of pitches, spectator support, home ground and so on. Then there’s the bio-bubble. And all these will have a significant impact on the result of matches.

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Spectators and the spectacle

In the absence of spectators, IPL will be played in silent stadiums. Spectators have been a casualty of the safety protocols to keep out the coronavirus. Maybe at a later stage, we may see some spectators. Right now, the chances look very bleak.

What’s an IPL without spectators? The full-throated cheering and the incessant whistling will be sorely missed. It gives the players an adrenaline boost. And that’s what home support means. Ask Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings, who have ridden to victories on the strength of spectator support. The CSK supporters even call themselves Whistle Podu (Blow the whistle) Army.

Players have only been swift to play down the absence of spectators, although they admit that their support has been crucial in the past. All cricketers have played in empty stadiums in their younger days. Even today, the domestic first-class games only attract a handful of spectators. So, it will not affect individual performances.

The supporters may not be in the stadium, but all of them will following their teams’ fortunes on screens, big and small: from television screens to cellphones.

Stadiums and home matches

The matches will be restricted to three stadiums in the UAE: Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Which means there won’t be home and away matches. There may be no home support, but the big plus here that it drastically reduces the travelling time. Cricketers will have enough time to unwind after matches since they won’t have to pack up and catch flights to the next venue. There won’t be time wasted at airports either. And players won’t be travel-weary.

Virat Kohli, the Royal Challengers Bangalore captain, thinks it will level the playing field. “In the IPL, the biggest challenge used to be travel. You pack your bags for a two-match trip, three-match trip, you come back, and it’s hectic. It is more of a level-playing field now. Three venues and every team would know the conditions. It boils down to the skill-level rather than the home-away advantage. The competition will be even and high because of this factor.”

Pitches: How will they turn out?

Since the matches are limited to three stadiums, the pitches are likely to wear out faster. The strips in the UAE are similar to the ones in the subcontinent. In the early days, they will play true and offer good bounce. Which means we may see plenty of runs, although cricket pundits predict totals only in excess of 150 runs. But these are based on statistics from T20 matches in the UAE. But IPL is a different beast. It tends to write its script.

As the tournament wears on, the pitches may slow down and is likely to offer plenty of bite to finger spinners and medium-pacers who can bowl the off-cutters and leg-cutters with relish. Leg-spinners have been a deciding factor in all the IPL events so far. So maybe, the UAE pitches will offer enough purchase for off-spinners and left-armers to come out of the shadows.

Weather: Can you run three?

September is not an ideal time to play outdoor sports in the UAE. It’s hot and muggy. But it’s better than the scorchers of July and August. In the past week, temperatures have dipped a bit, and humidity levels have improved. The weather can only get better.

Will the weather affect the IPL? Of course, it will. The stadiums will be like cauldrons and, the heat and humidity can be energy-sapping. That can affect fast bowlers coming for their second and third spells. And bowling at the death can more challenging than it already is.

Batsmen too will struggle, especially the ones who bat deep into the innings. So running between the wickets may suffer. Will we see those sneaky stolen quick singles, I wonder? Can you run three?

The conditions will severely test the physical fitness of cricketers. It will take more than stamina to last the season. But then these are professional sportspersons who work out even during the offseason. They have personal trainers, and their diets are well looked after. So there are not at risk of collapsing, but their performances may flag a bit as the tournament goes on. And if a cricketer’s form goes south, there may not be enough to room to get back into the groove.

The dew factor: Watch the toss

Dew is undoubtedly a worry. Since it tends to affect the second innings, winning the toss is very crucial. For, bowling second is a nightmare in dew-affected matches. A wet ball is not ideal for bowling, spin or seam.

In the latter half of the second innings, pace bowlers will struggle to find swing, reverse or otherwise. Spinners will find it difficult to grip the ball, let alone give it a good tweak. Fielding too becomes hazardous. There’s the risk of slipping in the field, and catching a wet ball isn’t easy either.

Batsmen like it. In the absence of any lateral movement, the ball will sit up for them. They can take risks without undue worries. The only concern will be a slowing outfield. So, watch out for the toss. It may hold the key to the results.

Beyond the boundaries

Size does matter when it comes to cricket grounds. It can determine the difference between a six and a catch on the boundary line. The three stadiums in the UAE are different. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are similar in size, but Sharjah is the smallest.

There will be more sixes and fours in Sharjah; much more than in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The mid-wicket and extra-cover fences are further in Abu Dhabi, which means there will be plenty of running at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium. In this weather, that’ll be tough. But spinners will love it since they have a chance of getting the batsmen caught in the outfield.

Mental fitness is a lonely battle

If the heat and humidity will test the physical fitness of players, there’s another unknown factor: mental fitness. Life in a bio-bubble is not easy. True, all the cricketers’ needs are taken care of, in the luxury hotels on the beachfront of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet the absence of interaction with the outside world can test the sanest of individuals.

Take the case of Suresh Raina, the leading run-scorer for Chennai Super Kings. He left the UAE a day after 13 cases were detected in the CSK camp. Harbajan Singh didn’t even report duty. Both have cited personal reasons, which is a catch-all phrase that dissuades further scrutiny. But it’s safe to assume that coronavirus played a role in their decisions.

Cricket can be a lonely game, especially if you are a batsman. When you face a bowler hurling the ball at over 140kmph, mental toughness matters. Professional cricketers are mentally tough, or else they wouldn’t have made it so far. But did the quarantine and life in a bubble affect mental fitness? No one knows. Their performances will tell us.

Is the long break good or bad?

India’s last international match was the Christchurch Test against New Zealand that ended on March 2. So COVID-19 has provided Indian cricketers with a long break from international duty. Given the surfeit of cricket these days, it could be argued that they deserved the time-off, allowing their bodies and minds to recover.

True, they would be refreshed and raring to go. But won’t they be rusty? Because there’s nothing like match fitness. And that comes from spending time in the middle. We shall find that out in the coming days.

Cricketers from Australia, England and the West Indies wouldn’t have such qualms. Some of them have come after playing the series in England. And they would have been well-acquainted the travails of living in a bio-bubble.

No saliva to shine the ball

The COVID-19 safety protocols prevent shining the cricket ball with saliva, and the rules were followed strictly in the three series in England. No spit and spittle to shine the ball in the IPL too. The fast bowlers must be muttering, but they know it. So there will be some vigorous rubbing on the trousers.

Fist bumps, but no hugs

Celebrations are no longer fun. The fall of a wicket will not spark frenzied celebrations of high fives and hugs. It will be more muted. Fist bumps at best. Or elbow bumps. That dilutes the celebrations. But then we live in a COVIDian world, a world changed by the onslaught of a virus.

Never mind the changes. Cricket must go on.