When the IPL moved to the UAE, the general perception was that there would be a certain sameness in the conditions across the three grounds. Of course, the games at Sharjah were always expected to be high-scoring, and perhaps that's why the organisers ensured that all the teams will play the same number of matches there. But setting the short boundaries in Sharjah aside, the pitches at the three venues have presented radically different kinds of challenges for batsmen and bowlers, and that's likely to change further as the tournament moves forward.
The pitches at the Dubai International Stadium for the first couple of games had tufts of grass, which meant not only that the ball darted around a little after pitching but also had variable bounce. The long, forced hiatus must have had an impact on the pitches too. The general consensus among players and curators is that cricket pitches need a certain amount of regular activity to ensure they behave well. Too much or too little action leads to some uncertainty with regard to pitch behaviour.
So it wasn't surprising to see bowlers, especially the faster ones, having a bigger say in the first few games. The assistance on offer for the bowlers also forced batsmen to choose caution over aggression before getting set, for the ones who didn't respect the conditions perished quickly.
The dimensions of the ground have further accentuated the slight dominance of the bowlers. But one thing that went against the teams fielding second was the presence of dew. At this time of year there's a significant difference between day and night temperatures in the UAE, and so dew is a factor. Every captain who has won the toss here has chosen to field first - for who wants to bowl with a bar of soap? Still, while it's tough to bowl with a wet ball, the help for bowlers on the surface, coupled with the huge boundaries, has negated the disadvantages of bowling with the wet ball somewhat.
In a T20 game, if there's any assistance in the pitch for the bowlers - which is unlikely to dissipate over the course of the game - it's always better to bat first. That way, you have enough time to make up for a few quiet overs later in the innings. And don't forget that it's the IPL, not international cricket, and every team will invariably have a weak link in the bowling department that you can go after. On the contrary, while batting second, your approach is predetermined by the scoreboard, and every quiet over adds an extra bit of pressure. Having said that, it must be said that the pitches in Dubai have already started to look a lot browner.
Unlike most stadiums in the world, this one has a ring of lights mounted along the rim of the roof. While the placement of the lights ensures that no long shadows are cast on the ground - it's like noon all the time - it creates blind spots for fielders when the ball goes high. Over the years, cricketers have figured out a way to create angles, whenever they can, to avoid looking into the floodlight banks, for it's almost impossible to catch the ball while looking directly into such strong light sources. But here there's no way you can create an angle to avoid the light, for you'll have two blind spots for nearly all skied balls - the first when the ball is on its way up and the second when it descends. It does create a slightly different depth perception as compared to what players are used to over the years. No wonder the dropped-catch percentages at this venue are a little alarming.
A flat pitch without a blade of grass, and a really small ground. One assumed that like the ones at Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the curator at Sharjah would also start off leaving some grass on the surface, but that wasn't the case. Perhaps the smaller number of matches to be played here, and the somewhat longer breaks between games, have allowed the curator to prepare a pitch befitting the legacy of this iconic stadium.
Sharjah is the only ground where you'd want to field first almost every time you win the toss, for it's a lot closer to what we get at the Chinnaswamy and Wankhede stadiums back in India. The presence of dew makes it even tougher for teams defending even big targets.
A number of people are of the opinion that we are seeing more sixes as compared to the past because the boundary ropes have been brought in significantly, but that's not the case. A vast majority of sixes are either reaching the stands or going outside the ground, which means that a few extra yards wouldn't have made a big difference to the final tally.
Besides the flat surface and the short boundaries, two factors play an important role: On smaller grounds, modern batsmen tend to go aerial with a lot more confidence and that's why the average six distance is greater at smaller grounds. That and the improvement in the quality of bats. One can only fantasise about how many sixes the likes of Kapil Dev would have hit at this venue if he had a modern bat in his hands.
The track at Abu Dhabi for the first game was close to what we have come to expect from tracks in the UAE. While the pitch wasn't a tough one to bat on, it wasn't as flat as the ones you will find at some Indian venues either. The ground at Abu Dhabi is as big as the one in Dubai, and there seems little inclination to bring in the boundary ropes to facilitate high-scoring games.
This ground, unlike the other two, has got lots of open spaces in the stadium structure, which ensures there's a fairly decent breeze blowing throughout the day. The breeze ensures dew does not make an early appearance, and that when it does, it is not too heavy to counter. Early signs are that this ground might end up as the lowest-scoring ground amongst the three venues, with spinners having a bigger say with every passing game.