It takes a moment to comprehend that the West Indies are the defending T20 champions. From the pole position in 2016, the Windies have taken a slide to number 10 in the ICC T20 rankings. Rankings can be misleading sometimes, as the teams do not face each other proportionally enough to justify the system. For the Windies, however, even the parameter of current form invites no solace. In 2019, they have lost eight of nine T20Is. Six out of six at home – against England and India – and two out of three away, against the lesser favoured Afghanistan in India.
The most successful cricket teams in the world across formats fielded outstanding bowling attacks; justifying the age-old sports adage, ‘defence wins you championships’. The West Indies T20I team was an anomaly. For a batting powerhouse, jewelled with myriad big-hitters, there was no total too big for them. The bowling unit, though not the strongest, had sufficient variety to contain the opposition.
With only three survivors – Lendl Simmons, Jason Holder and Denesh Ramdin – from the triumphant squad from 2016, the struggle for the Windies started with a slide in their batting numbers
The top-7 batsmen in the Windies line up have a collective strike-rate lower than all other Test-playing nations. Amidst all the change in personal, Evin Lewis (Strike-rate of 155.3 since 2016 World Cup) is the only player in the current squad with an attacking approach representative of the top T20I batsmen globally. Along with Lewis, Nicholas Pooran (Strike-rate of 121.6), is the only other batsman with a strike-rate above Windies’ average since the 2016 World Cup.
A good T20 batting team is as good as its top order. The top-3 batsmen in a team have faced 49.9% of all balls delivered in T20I cricket. Lewis’s partner at the top of the order, Brandon King earned his place after ruling the roost in the 2019 Caribbean Premier League (496 runs at a strike-rate of 148.9 in 12 matches). International cricket is what the Lannisters will call ‘a cat of a different coat’, as King identified after scoring 17 runs in three matches against Afghanistan at a strike-rate of 73.9.
The third member in the top-order, Simmons, resurrected his international career after scoring 430 runs at a strike-rate of 150.3 in 12 matches in the 2019 CPL. With just one game against Afghanistan, the hero of West Indies’ victory over India in the semis of 2016 World Cup, will hope for a longer run against them.
Devoid of explosive openers, India is in the process of identifying a process of setting targets. The onus is on the IPL experienced Windies batsmen to capitalize. Just like the champion West Indies T20 teams of the past, the bowling attack has sufficient potency.
Unlike the visitors, India only have a few questions to address before the World Cup next year. The latest series against Bangladesh saw some signs of them moving away from a set template of keeping wickets in hand for a late burst.
Shreyas Iyer with an approach missing since the glory days of Yuvraj Singh has helped India overcome their middle-over crisis. With a strike-rate of 159.3 in the last five games, Iyer’s push to an early acceleration instigated India’s shift from the conservative template.
With the complete squad fit to pick, India will have a player for definitive responsibility for all but one mandatory role. Until the discovery of MS Dhoni, finding an appropriate wicket-keeper batsman was a perpetual Indian cricket issue. Before Dhoni’s debut in 2004, India fielded 13 wicket keepers in ODIs since 1990. One for every year.
Now with no conclusive decision on Dhoni’s future, the focus has been on the perceived potential of Rishabh Pant. The unorthodox batsman from Delhi is a regular in the XI since India began their preparation in August for the gala next year.
Humans, vulnerable to nostalgia, are always on the lookout for the signs of past greats in the present generation. Is Messi the next Maradona? Federer the next Sampras? Kohli the next Tendulkar?
Pant carries the weight of expectations from a nation that championed one of the best wicket-keeper batsmen of all times. In the past six months, he has been under scrutiny more than others are. His shot selection and a few wicket-keeping blunders have not helped his cause. A strike-rate of 115.8 in the last eight matches is a sign of a player caught between playing his natural game and keeping his place in the side.
With only eleven games (on paper) before India’s first game in the World Cup next year, the series against the Windies is most likely to be a final floor test for Pant. In light of Pant’s failure to prove his credentials and not enough time to bleed Sanju Samson, a return of Dhoni for the big event is not far-fetched.