“We batted till nine tonight, so that’s one area we are looking to strengthen and go into the big tournament with the best possible combination,” said India captain Virat Kohli after his team’s nine-wicket loss to South Africa in Bengaluru which saw the tourists level the series 1-1 on Sunday.
If there was one word which could correctly describe Kohli’s tenure as the skipper of India, it has to be ‘intent’. He’s talked about showing it in the longest format of the game, and it has taken India to newer heights. In the limited-overs format though, especially T20Is, India have been found wanting for a long time.
“We are fortunate to have so many all-rounders in this T20 team. Most of them can bat. In the past, we did not take T20s seriously but now we are preparing for the World Cup. These 20-21 games are very important. By batting deep, we can go harder in the beginning and we will be trying different things in the coming series and see what works for us,” the newly-appointed batting coach Vikram Rathour admitted ahead of the last two T20Is against South Africa.
Acknowledging a problem is the first step towards resolving it and the statement was an honest confession, importantly from a man who is going to be in-charge of the side for the upcoming T20 World Cup.
For a long time, India have viewed T20Is as a trial ground to groom players for ODIs. You could hardly distinguish between the squads for the two formats which continue to grow vastly apart with data analysis creeping into the sport, every passing day.
Against South Africa, in the third and final T20I at Bengaluru, India came out with a predetermined mindset of looking to score 200. Despite losing Rohit Sharma early, India managed to get a decent start, posting 54/1 on the board in the first six overs. The deck though wasn’t conducive for stroke-play, and the hosts were found wanting as the ball started to hold onto the surface and didn’t quite come onto the bat.
India didn’t quite adapt to the changing nature of the wicket and continued to play their shots. Kohli, Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer have played plenty of games at the venue yet struggled to come to terms with the wicket. While it may not have come off, despite the deep batting unit, that India were happy to change things around and play T20Is as they should, can only be a good start.
A problem that has also plagued India is that they are playing batsmen out of their positions. The likes of Iyer and Pant bat at 3, 4 for their IPL franchise Delhi Capitals. The latter being mostly used as a floater but India played Iyer at 5, a place where he excelled in the 50-over format in the previous series against West Indies.
Playing specialists is the need of the hour, and yet India continue to stick with players who have done better in ODIs and expect them to adapt to the demands of T20Is.
Shikhar Dhawan, for example, has averaged over 40 in T20Is in a calendar year only once since 2016. His career average of 27.70 and strike rate of 129.87 hardly make for a compelling case in front of KL Rahul who has a T20I average of 42.80, striking at 148.10 with two T20I tons. It’s baffling that he doesn’t start in the XI.
India played Manish Pandey in the T20Is against West Indies but played Iyer in the series against South Africa at home because he came good in the preceding ODI series. It is something that needs urgent attention and change.
It is also important to note the sides India have played and beaten since the last World T20. They have won only one of their last five T20I series, with two drawn series against Australia and South Africa, and 0-2 and 1-2 losses to Australia and New Zealand respectively in 2019 itself.
If we break down India’s run-scoring patterns across phases in a T20 innings, the numbers that come up show that India are doing just about enough to stay in the reckoning.
Since the last T20 World Cup, India’s run-rate in the first six overs is only better than that of New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies. It is a result of the template that India have built in ODIs – the top three take their time, one of them bats deep into the innings to accelerate and finish with a flourish. Not surprisingly, India have gone about pacing their innings in T20Is in the very same manner.
Like most teams, India tend to slow down in the middle overs but still go at an acceptable rate of 8.16. England, South Africa and New Zealand are ahead of India but only by a slight margin.
In the final slot of five overs, India find themselves in the middle of the muddle once again with Afghanistan and New Zealand ahead.
India continue to linger in the middle of the table for both balls per four and balls per six. While they are on par with most teams in terms of finding the fence, they go over the boundary rope once every 18 balls approximately, four more than New Zealand and six more than Afghanistan.
In terms of batting positions, numbers tell us that India have put a higher price on their wicket but thereby compromising on the rate at which they get those runs.
India have the best average among top three batsmen but have the fourth-best strike rate which tells you how they are happy to bat longer while scoring a bit slower than usual.
With the middle order, it is no different. India boss the average charts but the strike rates are just about par.
Kohli talked about the lower order contributing with the bat but what the team seems to be missing is someone who can hit a boundary or two in the few balls that they face. The likes of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have lost their place in T20Is due to their lack of contributions with the bat. The likes of Krunal Pandya and Washington Sundar may have better batting prowess but the issue remains for India as neither of them are designated hitters of the cricket ball and have often struggled against fast bowlers.
India had Sundar batting at No. 9, someone who bats in the top order for his side in the Tamil Nadu Premier League and has often made the most of the fielding restrictions in the first six overs. He, though, hasn’t been used as a batsman at all for both Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League or India.
India’s tail is only better than that of Sri Lanka and South Africa in the same criteria. Pakistan have found bowlers who can hit the ball and get them those extra 10-15 runs at the back end of the innings. In all fairness, you wouldn’t expect batsmen to contribute with a wicket or two with the ball in case their regular bowlers fail to do the job. It makes the expectation of having your bowlers contribute with the bat a bit too much.
The team will have to find a balance between being aggressive and being rash. It will first need the ability to read conditions and assess situations better. India wanted to put themselves out of their comfort zone and batted first. Teams generally falter going for too many too early and the same happened with India. A deep batting line-up can help but not at the price of wicket-taking bowlers in the side.
India may be looking at the 2016 semi-final game against West Indies as a crucial point in their T20 journey where they settled for a score which could have easily been 15-20 runs more and hence want a deep batting line-up to give freedom to the top order. They, though, shouldn’t forget the 2012 World T20 final against Sri Lanka. The Lankan bowlers didn’t take too many wickets but found ways to restrict the Indian batsmen.
India wouldn’t want Jasprit Bumrah to be working on his batting. It’s time India ensure that the specialists do their job. If not, there might be another semi-final or final exit waiting to happen Down Under.