The first fortnight of IPL 2020, presently under way in the UAE, has thrown up its shares of thrills and edge-of-the-seat excitement. Two of the matches were tied, taking the respective games into the Super Over, thus sustaining the tension well into the evening. The highest run chase in the history of the championship was recorded when Rajasthan Royals surmounted the near invincible total of 223 runs for three wickets posted by Kings XI Punjab. Sanju Samson, the wonder boy from Kerala, took the pitches in the desert to his heart, striking sixes at will, to emerge as the batsman to clear the boundary on most occasions, a walloping 16 times in the first four games. The splendid batting of Sanju, along with the three half-centuries scored by Devdutt Padickal, a non-resident Keralite, made this a fortnight to remember for cricket fans from Kerala.
The old warhorses, from Mahendra Singh Dhoni to Virat Kohli, showed that lockdown had affected their fitness levels much more than their younger counterparts, as they struggled to find the vigour and form that had made them such huge successes in the past. There was even a small controversy by the side as Anushka Sharma took objection to the comments made by Sunil Gavaskar about the poor form displayed by her husband in the opening stage of the championship.
When the matches during the first half of the tournament are analysed, one factor that has stood out consistently has been the increasing importance of leg-break bowlers in determining the course and result of the matches. When this format of the game first came into existence, it was believed that this would be the proverbial graveyard of spinners as the smaller grounds, bats with greater power and the overwhelming desire of batsmen to clear the ground would make it difficult for the slow bowlers to make much of an impact. However, things have changed so much over the past decade and the half that today the purveyors of the most difficult art in cricket are in highest demand in the shortest version of the game.
No side in IPL 2020 has taken the field without a leg spinner in the playing eleven. The frontline leggies in the tournament so far are Rashid Khan (Sun risers Hyderabad), Yuzvendra Chahal (Royal Challengers Bangalore), Rahul Chahar (Mumbai Indians), Ravi Bishnoi (Kings XI Punjab), Amit Mishra (Delhi Capitals), Rahul Tewatia (Rajasthan Royals), Varun Chakravarthy (Kolkata Knight Riders) and Piyush Chawla (Chennai Super Kings). Two of them have won the man-of-the-match awards – Khan and Chahal. While Khan took 3 wickets conceding only 14 runs in the match against Delhi Capitals to help his side score a narrow 15-run win, Chahal scalped 3 wickets in the game against Sunrsers Hyderabad, giving away only 18 runs, to seal a close game for his team. Khan’s returns of 4-0-12-0 from the game against Chennai Super Kings are the best figures in terms of economy rate so far in this championship. Chahal too displayed his wares skilfully to pick up 3 wickets for 24 runs to help his side win a crucial encounter against Rajasthan Royals and once against was adjudged man of the match.
Even though they have not won man-of-the-match awards, the leg spinners of other sides have contributed substantially towards the success of their teams. Rahul Chahar has bowled the middle overs for Mumbai Indians, keeping them tight, while picking up wickets regularly. In the match against Kings XI Punjab, this 21-year-old from Rajasthan took the vital wickets of K L Rahul and Glen Maxwell, besides keeping the run rate down, and was named as the player who made maximum impact in this game. Varun Chakravarthy did not play the first match for Kolkata Knight Riders, which they lost. In the next two outings Chakravarthy, who has till date played only one first class match, bowled a teasing line, picking up critical wickets without conceding too many runs. But he was off colour in the match against Delhi Capitals where Shreyas Iyer tore into him, amassing 30 runs in the nine balls he bowled to the batsman.
Kings XI Punjab has not had a successful championship till date, losing a couple of close matches, including a Super Over play-off. Their opening batsmen Rahul and Mayank Agarwal figure at the top among the list of highest run-getters. Thus, it is evident that they have been let down by their bowlers, who have been largely off colour, with the notable exception of Bishnoi. This 20-year-old from Jodhpur, who is yet to play a first-class match, has been the lone source of consistency in the attack of the Chandigarh franchisee and his temperament has won praise from the commentators.
Rahul Tewatia has earned more fame in this tournament for his explosive batting during the later stage of the match against Kings XI Punjab, where he struck 5 sixes in an over from Sheldon Cotrell to clinch a remarkable win for his team. But his contributions with the ball have been equally important, as was seen during the game against Chennai Super Kings where he took 3/37 runs in a high- scoring match.
The only two leg spinners who were relatively off colour are Piyush Chawla and Amit Mishra, both of who had donned India colours in the past. After beginning the championship with a good spell against Mumbai Indians, Chawla has struggled to get the right line and length and done little to justify his purchase price of Rs 6.75 crore. He also appear to have added a couple of pounds around his waist during the period of lockdown, which does not go well with his general appearance. On the other hand, Mishra, who did not play in the first match, bowled well against Chennai Super Kings, but struggled in the subsequent games against Sunrisers Hyderabad.and Kolkata Knight Riders. Delhi Capitals would be looking forward to this old warhorse finding his form quickly as he would hold the trump that could propel the side into the knockout phase.
What could be the reason for leg-spinners doing so well during the first phase of the championship this year? Bowlers who have done well traditionally in the IPL like Sunil Narine and Ravindra Jadeja have struggled to get wickets and control runs this year. The only other spin bowler to make an impact has been Washington Sundar of Royal Challengers Bangalore who bowled a tight spell during the match against Mumbai Indians. The success of leg spinners during this phase could be due to the fact that the wickets in the three grounds in the UAE, which are slow on nature, gets slower as the game progresses. This makes run scoring difficult for the batsmen as the ball does not come on to the bat and they are forced either to wait for it, which reduces options for playing strokes, or to reach out for the ball, which increases the chances of mishits and dismissals.
Leg-spinners, who give the ball air and do not push the ball quickly, are more effective on such wickets as the pitches further slow down the pace of the ball, thus making it very difficult to score off them. This was demonstrated by Sachin Tendulkar in the first ever One-Day International at Kochi in 1998, when the great man spun a web around the Aussies to claim five wickets and bag the man-of-the-match award. An experienced practitioner of this art like Rashid Khan would find the conditions to his liking more than fast bowlers or spinners who bowl at a brisker pace.
The championship has only gone through the initial phase and it would not be a possible to hazard a guess as to who be the ultimate winner at this stage. However, one prediction that could be safely made based on the matches held so far is that leg spinners are likely to play a bigger role in determining the winner in this edition of IPL than in the previous ones.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)