Unmasking the true nature of Spin vs Pace in UAE in T20s

Ravichandran Ashwin/Jasprit Bumrah (Image source: Twitter)
Ravichandran Ashwin/Jasprit Bumrah (Image source: Twitter)

After a great Test series in England, it is time for a proper T20 season where four months of T20 cricket will be played in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The action will start with the second half of the biggest T20 league – IPL which was halted midway in May due to rising covid cases in various camps. The IPL will be followed by the T20 World Cup which was supposed to happen last year in Australia.

With so much T20 cricket going to be played in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah there is a lot of talk about the conditions and what they will offer for the players. There is a perception that the pitches in UAE aid spinners, but is that really the case? We decided to try and find answers by diving deep into the numbers.

How did the spinners fare in IPL 2020 (UAE)?

Note: Run-outs haven’t been included in the count

IPL 2020 which was held in UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah) saw the least percentage of wickets by spinners in the last three seasons of the IPL. In IPL 2018, spinners picked up 38.22% of the wickets. It further increased to 41.09% in IPL 2019 but dropped down to 31.68% in IPL 2020. 60 matches is a sufficient sample size and with so many quality spinners playing in the IPL it is quite a surprise that they could manage only 198 wickets in so-called favorable conditions as compared to 434 by pace bowlers.

Note: ER – Economy Rate, BPD – Balls Per Dismissal, BPB – Balls Per Boundary, DBP – Dot Ball Percentage

When it comes to wicket-taking, pace has been more effective as seen in the above graph. The pacers have picked up a wicket every 20 balls while the spinners need 7 more balls to dismiss a batsman. One area where the spinners have been better than the pacers is the economy rate and the balls per boundary ratio but that would be the case in most of the venues as the pacers bowl more in the death overs where the batsmen are naturally more aggressive. To frame it in another way, you can say that pacers were the more attacking bowlers who kept picking up wickets whereas spinners played a more defensive role by keeping the run-rate down.

Looking at the numbers so far there is no evidence to suggest that spinners have been more effective or better wicket-takers than pacers in UAE, so will it be the case in the IPL and the T20 WC? Has India gone in with the wrong combination of five frontline spinners as compared to England who has gone in with just one? There is another thought process that after the 31 matches of the IPL, pitches in UAE will get tired and generally such pitches help the slower bowlers or spinners. But was that the case in IPL 2020?

This shows the average and economy rate for pacers and spinners in the first 30 matches of the IPL and the last 30 matches of the IPL which took place in UAE in 2020. The numbers show that while the economy rate for the spinners reduced in the second half, the ability to take wickets went down as well. In the first half, the spinners averaged 31.5 while in the second half it went up to 37. 

Contrary to this, the average and economy rate of pacers improved ever so slightly in the second half. Again there is no evidence to suggest that spinners would have an upper hand over the pacers, in fact, it is the other way round. So, now the main question that arises is whether India has gone in with the wrong team combination, and has England picked it right?

Note: T20Is haven’t been included in this count

If you look at the T20 WC schedule, India plays 4 out of their 5 league games in Dubai. One of the two Semi-Finals is in Dubai and even the Final is in Dubai. So, if India makes it to the Final of the T20 WC then they will play at least five games in Dubai which has the best numbers for spinners in UAE since 2018 owing to its large ground size. Spinners in UAE in T20s since 2018, have an average of 27 in Dubai which goes over 30 in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Not only that but the economy rate is just above 7 which is a plus point as well.

On the other hand, England has a mixed schedule as they have two games in Dubai, one at Abu Dhabi and two at Sharjah. Sharjah being a small ground is a high-risk venue for spinners and it was the least effective for them by a fair margin in IPL 2020. Even though England has two games in Dubai, they have backed their strength which is pace bowling as compared to spin. Even though India and England seem to have opposite approaches they are moving in the right direction. However, both the teams could have done with a change. India could have gone with an extra seamer and four spinners whereas England could have picked another frontline spinner to complement Adil Rashid.

Having said that, the traditional perception that pitches in UAE aid spin is not entirely true as we saw with various datasets. Yes, there is some help for the spinners but by no means these are pitches where scoring against spin is extremely difficult or a spinner is going to run through teams in the middle-overs. If anything, it has shown that pace is going to be as important if not more than spin if a team wants to win the T20 WC.

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