Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash
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T20 Challenge (1)
Strokemaking is one of the top attractions of T20 cricket and so curators usually look to prepare pitches that are a little skewed in favour of the batters. While some argue that there should always be a fair contest between bat and ball, the dynamics of a T20 game demand that bowlers need to look elsewhere than the pitch for allies.
Scoreboard pressure is as real as the ball swinging in the air or turning off the surface, and must be used to your advantage. Of course, nobody wants a featherbed for a surface at a really small ground. A lot of people tell you that the watching public, at home or in the stadium, loves only big hits but the fact is that too much of anything isn't good. In a bat versus bat contest, cricket often loses.
This IPL has already produced some very interesting surfaces and the trend is likely to continue. With only six venues hosting the entire tournament and only two being used during any given block of about two weeks, the chances of pitches adding a new element to the contests are high. When there are back-to-back matches over two consecutive days at the same venue, the curator might try his best to have two similar pitches ready but it's a lot easier said than done because he doesn't really have the option to use the pitches that are off to one side or the other. And the ones close to the central playing surface attract heavy traffic and so are bound to have a lot of wear and tear.
How do you counter challenging surfaces in a T20 game? Obviously the challenge is different on different surfaces. The pitch in Chennai has been slowing down radically as games progress, and that makes it toughest to bat during the last five overs there. On the contrary, the green and moist pitch at the Wankhede Stadium is toughest to bat on in the first six overs, while the ball is new.
Since the challenges are different, they need to be countered differently too. In Chennai, you need to start the innings assuming that run-scoring is going to get tougher with every passing over, and that makes it important to play high-risk cricket up front.
You must attack from the get-go, and while you should still choose the areas you want to target, there's merit in stretching the envelope a little in the first six overs. After that, the focus must switch to rotating the strike as much possible, and perhaps, waiting for short-pitched deliveries for boundary shots. Once the ball gets old in Chennai, it's very difficult to hit boundaries off the front foot without taking a significant amount of risk. Of course that risk must be taken once in a while but if you have gotten off to a flier and have managed to rotate the strike in the middle overs, you won't be forced to manufacture these shots all the time.
Chepauk is a reasonably big ground and it may not be a bad idea to chip the ball over the fielders inside the circle to create opportunities for twos - that's something we haven't seen very often thus far in the tournament.
It must be acknowledged that all of this is much easier said than done, for a game of cricket will invariably find a narrative of its own.
As for the first six overs at the Wankhede Stadium, on a night when the ball is seaming around, you ought to dip into your Test batting repertoire and momentarily forget that it's a T20 game and that Mumbai is a high-scoring ground. Our game demands that one must always respect the conditions, and if you don't just because it's a different format, you're likely to fail.
The swinging-seaming ball must be encountered with caution and care. Don't play big, booming drives on the up. Instead, allow the ball to come to you.
T20 cricket has changed the mindsets of a lot of bowlers and many feel obliged to try a couple of variations in any given over. Often it's the change of pace on a surface good for batting, but even on a bowler-friendly surface, they tend to change the line and length a couple of times in an over, and that's the opportunity you must wait for and seize.
If there are no easy opportunities to score, you must bide your time and back yourself to make up for the lost time in the overs to follow. The toughest thing for a goalkeeper while saving a penalty shot is to stand still and hold his ground instead of anticipating and diving to one side, but there's enough evidence to suggest that his best chance of pulling off a save is to not move till the ball has been kicked. A batter letting a couple of deliveries go to the wicketkeeper in a T20 game is akin to standing still for a goalkeeper, but on a seamer-friendly pitch that might be the best thing you as a batter could do to help yourself and the team.
Once again, like it was the case for the strategy to succeed in Chennai, this too is easier said than done here.