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How bowlers are dealing with the high-scoring conditions in Sharjah

Field placements have come to the fore at the high-scoring ground

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
The refurbished Sharjah Cricket Stadium gears up for IPL 2020, Sharjah, September 1, 2020

Bowlers have set their fields thoughtfully in Sharjah where even the end of powerplay overs offers them no respite  •  Sharjah Cricket Council

A close reading of the Laws of cricket suggests that they were created by batsmen for batsmen. Even if that wasn't the case, subsequent changes to the laws definitely loaded them in favour of batsmen.
However, while everyone agrees that cricket has evolved, few realise that bowlers have evolved too in response. When a restriction was placed on the number of bouncers, they found a way to make the old ball swing. When bats were made thicker and pitches flatter to ensure high scores, they came up with multiple variations like the doosra, the carrom ball, the knuckleball, the well-disguised wrong'un, and more.
That's the kind of feeling I'm getting while watching IPL games in Sharjah this season. The number of runs scored here suggest there isn't a foolproof plan to restrict batsmen in these conditions, but there is also evidence that bowlers are finding ways to meet the challenges thrown at them.
At the start of the IPL, we knew more runs would be scored in Sharjah than at the two other venues, but nobody thought it would happen to this extent. Some of the stroke-making against perfectly decent deliveries has highlighted the quality of batting at this level. When you see batsmen like Sanju Samson, Shreyas Iyer, Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal hit towering sixes down the ground without stepping out of the crease, you know that batting has been elevated to a much higher plane than before. The likes of Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell hitting sixes at will is one thing, but if batsmen who don't necessarily muscle the ball start hitting sixes in that fashion, there's very little a bowler can do.
While sixes over long-on and long-off have featured more often, the sixes hit over covers have been more eye-catching, and there have been quite a few of them too. A six over covers could possibly be the most difficult shot to execute, but even those seem to be being hit with relative ease.
The roots of hatching a plan to concede fewer runs lie in an acceptance that getting hit in Sharjah is inevitable, and that therefore one must look to control where one gets hit and how. In the first couple of games here, we saw conventional field placements from all the fast bowlers. But come the third game, the placements and plans changed.
Plan A
Instead of using a conventional deep third-man and fine leg, the point and square-leg fielders patrol the fence. Captains may start with a slip in place, with the third-man fielder standing almost next to him inside the circle. The line of attack would be fifth stump, and the length a little short of driving length. The extra protection at deep point ensures that unless the ball is really short outside off, you won't get hit for a boundary behind point. Also, if you are trying to exploit the fact that the fielders at third man and fine leg are inside the circle, you can't do it without taking risks. Another option is to move one of the fielders from the off side to short midwicket.
Plan B
The second fielding configuration we have seen put in motion during the powerplay overs (for both fast and slow bowlers) is five fielders inside the circle on the off side. The two fielders on the fence in this plan are deep square-leg and long-on. With this field, the bowler looks to bowl as straight as possible; anything that provides room gets easily dispatched through or over the ring on the off side. Ideally, one must not slip down the leg side, and the length is equally critical - it must never be short enough to be pulled.
Plan C
At most venues, you get a respite after the powerplay overs are done, but not in Sharjah. And that's when we have seen fast bowlers at their innovative best. The four fielders inside the circle are third man, fine leg, extra cover, and a straight-ish mid-on. Deep point is fairly straight, and the other boundary fielder in that region is protecting the cover boundary. Wide yorkers are used quite liberally in this sort of field setting. But since you don't want to be too predictable with regard to line and length, there are two fielders patrolling the square-leg and deep-midwicket fence. The mid-on fielder is inside the circle because most batsman tend to drag the ball towards midwicket when they're trying to muscle it. We rarely see batsmen going with a straight bat over the bowler's head in the death overs.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash