"There is a roundabout just outside the Sharjah ground, with a signboard saying graveyard. There is a cemetery there. I have always felt it should be pointing towards the ground as that has often proved to be bowlers' graveyard."
That was Sanjay Manjrekar while previewing the Sunrisers Hyderabad vs Punjab Kings game for ESPNcricinfo.
Manjrekar wasn't wrong. Sharjah has indeed been a virtual burial ground for bowlers, with batters relishing its flat pitches and small boundaries. During the first half of IPL 2020, when the pitches were fresh, teams batting first in Sharjah crossed 200 four times in six matches. The lowest first-innings total in those games was 184.
However, there is one difference this time: the pitches in Sharjah were relaid just before the UAE leg of IPL 2021 began.
While the venue has hosted only two games so far this season, the ball has already been turning, gripping and holding into the surface. On Friday, Royal Challengers Bangalore's mighty batting line-up managed only 156 for 6 against Chennai Super Kings.
Saturday's game between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Punjab Kings was played on the adjacent pitch, but run-making proved to be even more difficult.
After being put in, Kings could muster only 125 for 7. Later, at the post-match presentation, their captain KL Rahul would say, "It was not a 160-170 wicket. Even if a couple of batters had got set, we would have put 140 or 150 on the board."
Aiden Markram would go into the why part at the press conference: "Anything with pace off was really holding in the wicket. And even the pace-on balls were not coming on [to the bat], so it was very difficult to find the boundary. And the outfield was quite thick and slow. So you were not getting as much as you would have liked for your shots."
And Sunrisers stuttered too in their chase. After six overs, they were 20 for 2, the lowest powerplay total at Sharjah in the IPL.
In the middle overs, Ravi Bishnoi troubled the batters with a mix of legbreaks and big-turning googlies. He castled Manish Pandey, had Kedar Jadhav chopping on and got Abdul Samad miscuing to short third man. With Sunrisers 60 for 5 in 13 overs, requiring another 66 from seven overs, in walked Jason Holder.
Earlier in the day, Holder had registered his best IPL figures, 3 for 19, which included the wickets of Rahul and Mayank Agarwal in the same over. When Kings were looking to accelerate towards the end of the innings, Holder returned to remove a dangerous-looking Deepak Hooda.
Now, his team required him to do it with the bat too. Holder played out a few deliveries but the asking rate had crossed ten. With 58 needed from 32 balls, Bishnoi provided the perfect opportunity to tee off: a fuller ball around off stump. Holder cleared his front leg and carted it for a straight six. In the next over, he launched Nathan Ellis over deep midwicket and long-on for back-to-back sixes.
Two overs later, Shami bowled one in the slot and was smashed down the ground for another six. Arshdeep Singh bowled an excellent penultimate over, which left Sunrisers requiring 17 from six balls.
Holder hit Ellis' second delivery for a six, but with seven needed on the final balls, he failed to tie the game.
Still, on a pitch, where everyone else struggled, Holder struck an unbeaten 47 off 29 balls. His five sixes were three more than the combined tally of all other batters in the match.
How could Holder do what he did with the bat?
Sunrisers' coach Trevor Bayliss explained after the game: "He played fairly straight [Holder scored 26 runs in the 'V']. He has got a long reach on him, so he can get down the wicket but primarily he played fairly straight. He hit through the ball and didn't necessarily try to play too square.
"It's difficult to play or score runs square of the wicket or behind point and square leg when there is no pace on the ball. And he showed the boys how it should be done, by playing straight. Take your singles down to mid-on and mid-off and if the ball is in the slot… obviously he is a good striker of the ball and he lobbed a few over the fence to give us a chance. I mean that's the lesson for the rest of the guys. Play nice and straight on a wicket like this."
As per ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats, Holder's 47 was worth 64.63 and his three wickets worth 4.48 wickets. He topped both batting and bowling ratings, which gave him a match impact of 173.52, more than double the next best (Shami's 82.4). Player-of-the-Match awards are generally given to the best performer from the winning side, but so towering was Holder's impact, that he left little doubt he was the one to earn it.