If India’s T20 World Cup campaign started with a bang against Pakistan, it ended with the smallest of whimpers against England, in a ten-wicket thrashing that consigned India to its latest in a long line of defeats in knock-out games. The post-mortem is no doubt already underway, but so often have these conversations been held of late that there will be a sense of déjà vu about it all.
India’s tournament started with the brightest of sparks, against a rampant Pakistan pace attack. But other than against the likes of the Netherlands and Zimbabwe, rarely did India look like a team who would genuinely frighten oppositions. Even against Bangladesh, India avoided disaster thanks largely to a chaotic period of brainless batting by Bangladesh. Instead, the brilliance of Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav papered over significant
cracks in the team – and uncharacteristically, many of these were in the batting department.
There are many reasons that can be ascribed to India’s abysmal record in knockout cricket, but the first and most important aspect is personnel.
India’s selection strategy at this tournament was dubiously defensive, at best. India preferred picking the lumbering Ravichandran Ashwin over leg-spinner and genuine wicket- taking option Yuzvendra Chahal (who didn’t play a game in the tournament), and the waning Dinesh Karthik over the explosive Rishabh Pant. The side also persisted with KL Rahul, who was regularly unimpressive, despite the more dynamic Deepak Hooda warming the bench.
Omitted from the squad altogether were young players like Sanju Samson, Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill, who have proved that they can match it against the best, and are unbeleaguered by past failures.
Hindsight is of course, 20/20, but from the outset, Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma would have done well to learn from the aggressive approach to selection by MS Dhoni ahead of the 2007 T20 World Cup, which remains India’s only T20 World Cup title. Controversially at the time, Dhoni ditched experience in favour of boldness and youth – and the likes of Ashwin would never have made that squad, let alone the playing XI. The benefits of youth are overstated at times, but they go beyond athleticism in the field; youthfulness in a team breeds an infectious sense of fearlessness, the key aspect of the game in which India has struggled heavily in the last decade or so. It mustn’t be forgotten that India were missing two of its most important players through injury, in Ravindra Jadeja and Jasprit Bumrah. Both play critical roles for India, particularly in limited overs cricket.
But in the same way, so too was England missing Mark Wood and Dawid Malan, both first choice players, through injury in England’s semi-final victory over India. In any event, such are the demands of the modern game that there are many more players with international-quality experience ready to slot in; injuries are an unavoidable part of the game.
India’s “softly-softly” approach to T20 international cricket also belies a key learning from the IPL and from teams like England: starting slow with the bat is, by and large, a losing strategy. With KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli all accustomed to starting slow and finishing big, India is overly reliant on Suryakumar Yadav and Hardik Pandya to deliver in the death overs. That is a lot of undue pressure given India’s long tail, particularly in the absence of Ravindra Jadeja. It’s also an incredibly outdated approach.
Over the last five years, England have transformed their previously sedate white ball strategy to an almost reckless extent. As India experienced in the fifth and deciding Pataudi Trophy Test, it’s an overhaul that is now bleeding into England’s “Bazball” approach to Test cricket, too.
Of course, as English fans will attest too, hyper-aggression leads to embarrassment at times – England has a penchant for being dismissed for comically paltry totals – but it is also delivering results on the biggest stages, with England the only team to hold
both the T20 World Cup and 50-over World Cup titles at the same time.
But India is not, in any event, immune from embarrassing defeats – this tournament proved that once again. To build a culture of fearlessness, however, India must be
fearless in selection (and non-selection). It means Rahul Dravid and the board of selectors must be prepared to have some difficult conversations in the months ahead.
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