The Super League phase of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy has been played on four surfaces, across two venues in Surat, three of which have been rather difficult for the batsmen to handle. The ball has spun sharply on the red-soil decks, occasional inconsistent bounce making life that much difficult.
Deliveries have also "generously stopped on the batsmen", as a talent scout put it, making spinners the captains' default go-to option, like in the Super League game between Punjab and Tamil Nadu, where Punjab bowled all of three deliveries of pace, that too in the final over of the chase, in defending 94.
This despite having in their ranks Siddarth Kaul, an India fast bowler who has risen to be a key member of Sunrisers Hyderabad's bowling attack. His IPL and Punjab new-ball partner Sandeep Sharma, capable of swinging the ball both ways, was watching the action unfold from fine leg, not called up to bowl even once. Punjab, on their part, nearly defended the target, picking up six wickets.
The Maharashtra-Rajasthan clash too produced 13 wickets and a match aggregate of just 200 runs. On the same surface, Jharkhand were bundled for 85 by Tamil Nadu's cyclic trail of spin, before crashing out of the tournament with four straight losses in the Super League phase.
While all this has gone on, the black-soil surface has produced high-scoring contests, none bigger than the final Super League game between Mumbai and Punjab, where Mumbai, needing to win by a 90-run margin or thereabouts, shellacked 243 on a pitch Suryakumar Yadav described as a "dream". Punjab responded with 221. Then, in the first semi-final on Friday, Karnataka made a mockery of a 195-run chase, walking home past Haryana in just 15 overs. A similar surface will be used for Sunday's final between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu at the Lalabhai Contractor Stadium.
It is clear the difference in surfaces have contributed to the inconsistency in scoring patterns and results. This means there are some bowling performances that may seem a tad inflated than few others.
Hemang Badani, the former India batsman who has watched a bulk of the tournament as commentator for BCCI, offered some perspective to ESPNcricinfo: "On a black-soil pitch, it's important for the fast bowlers to hit the right lengths. If you pitch short, it just sits up, and batsmen have all the time in the world to pull. As such, there haven't been any 140kph bowlers. Bowlers needed to use yorkers or change of pace, otherwise there isn't much to offer. Spinners don't get much turn either. The presence of dew makes it easier for the ball to slide."
At the same time, have the red-soil pitches been so difficult to bat on that even crossing 100 hasn't happened at times? "Not at all," Badani said. "Yes, the surfaces aren't great, but even if these are the ones available, batsmen should have the skillsets to counter it. With a better approach, you could've scored 130-135 on the same surfaces."
It's not that just the rookies have struggled. Indian domestic regulars who have been in prolific form right through the season have also found it tough to score on the red-soil decks. Badani's insights encompass the bigger picture. With the IPL auction around the corner and so much attention around the tournament from talent scouts, factors like these can't always be captured through scorecards.
"It's the lack of manoeuvrability that is the issue," Badani explained. "As batsmen, the game has moved on. T20 has evolved to a power-hitting game. Even at the nets, batsmen do a lot of range hitting, and while they've gotten better at hitting the big sixes, batsmen at large aren't really adept at milking the ball into the gaps, like say stepping out and easing it to cover, or staying back and tapping to point. Invariably when batsmen step out, they're looking to clear the ropes. Part of the reason for the succession of low scores lies in their own techniques.
"They're hitting the long ball, but I've seen a drop in skill levels when it comes to nudging the ball, playing spin late. In our days, we were punished for hitting the ball in the air, so we had to have other skillsets, like using your feet to get to the pitch and take singles, or using your feet just to disturb their lengths. Yes, rarely will you find surfaces as challenging as these, but the shot-selection aspect could've been better too. As a batsman, you either wait for the ball to turn and play late or try to get to the pitch and smother it completely."
As such, the tournament has received a facelift with the presence of the cream of India's T20 talent. "I think the players deserve credit," Badani said. "To see them attaching importance to their state cricket is good to see, and that shows in the crowd response too. Mayank [Agarwal] and [R] Ashwin turning up from their Test duties to play for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Deepak Chahar, Dinesh Karthik, Shubman Gill, Washington Sundar Shreyas Iyer, Yuzvendra Chahal, Prithvi Shaw, Manish Pandey, Karun Nair - credit to them and the associations for that.
"Even until a few years ago, the general attitude was: 'I've just returned from national duties, I need a break'. Now, the competition is such that with so many people jostling for places and every opportunity being closely watched, players have that drive and incentive to perform. The eagerness to return has what has made the tournament a highlight."