Since the start of T20I cricket in 2005, the top four in a batting line-up have played 65% of the 62,457 balls bowled. In the context of an innings, the top four have batted out 13 of the 20 overs on average. While a T20 game requires batsmen to be attacking throughout the innings, the last 5-6 overs often involves an all-out attacking approach especially with wickets in hand. A basic analysis of the aforementioned trend in T20I cricket makes it obvious to that players at five, six and later are equipped with the hitting ability that is required for the end overs of a T20 game.
In a 50-over game, however, the historic trend suggests that the top three have faced 48% or 24 overs of the 50 overs bowled, leaving the middle order a total of 26 overs to play in an average innings.
The reasons for the analysis is to point out the bizarre and inexplicable decision-making by the Virat Kohli-led Indian team. In the 50-over World Cup, the preferred number four was Rishabh Pant, a player more adept to big hitting over consolidating an innings for a period of 26 overs. Whereas, during the current T20I series against the West Indies, the team decided to play Manish Pandey at five, who has a career T20I strike rate of 122.4 and has a strike rate of 112 while batting at number five in the IPL.
In terms of batting strike rate, Pandey fails to find himself in the top 10 T20 batsmen in international and IPL. In the IPL, Pandey’s sporadic success has come whenever he has batted up the order, a position unavailable in the Indian XI for a foreseeable future.
While Pant warrants a few chances at number four based on his impressive show in the IPL, the team management needs to be very particular in defining his role. Pant often attracts criticism for his shot selection but it is important to understand the clarity of his role first. It should be clear if Pant has the license to play his shots irrespective of the situation or if the management expects him to respect the situation as well.
In the first T20I against the Windies, he got out to an irresponsible shot despite India having lost two early wickets. In the second T20I, however, his approach cannot be questioned as the team was looking to accelerate during that phase. Although the management currently seems adamant to bat Pant at four, but given his temperament, it will be better to be flexible with his batting position and push him to five or six if the team receives early jolts.
In the third T20I, given that India have won the series and achieved their primary objective, the team should look to bring in the likes of Shreyas Iyer, who has been successful for his IPL franchise Delhi Capitals in the middle order. Iyer and Pant have the ability to form a solid duo at number four and number five respectively with the ability to be flexible at either position as per the situation and the opposition.
Shikhar Dhawan conundrum
It is no secret that Shikhar Dhawan is a part of the Indian T20 squad more on reputation than performance. With a batting strike rate of 129.9, he is not among the top 10 international and IPL openers since April 2016. Lukewarm performances in the first two T20Is (1 off 7 balls and 23 off 16 balls) raises questions on his position in the team yet again.
Given that only a handful of T20Is are left before the World T20 in Australia next year, the team management should plan to have an alternate opener ready for the big stage. KL Rahul is the favourite to take Dhawan’s place. Other feasible options for the spot include youngsters in Prithvi Shaw, missing due to doping trouble and Shubman Gill (strike rate of 140 in six innings in the IPL as an opener), who is not part of the current squad. It is the responsibility of the management to take a call on Dhawan, sooner rather than later, to ensure an alternate opener receives enough opportunities to prepare himself at the international level.
Given the workload in IPL and the 50-over World Cup, it is completely justified to rest Jasprit Bumrah for the current T20I series against the West Indies. This also gives the team an opportunity to test other bowlers in Navdeep Saini and Khaleel Ahmed. Saini was the Man of the Match is the first game for his impressive spell of 4 for 17. Khaleel too has been on the money and has been very economical in both the matches (series economy rate 6 runs per over).
The third T20I might see a few changes to the bowling line-up as India can afford to rest Bhuvneshwar Kumar and bring in Deepak Chahar. His cousin, Rahul Chahar, also deserves a look-in after an impressive IPL for the Mumbai Indians.
Just like the 50-over World Cup, the Indian bowling looks strong and once the premier bowlers are back, the attack is world class. The team management needs to plan for having a playing XI that provides a sixth bowling option and to ensure that the primary bowling unit plays maximum matches together before the World T20. The rest can be limited to ODIs for the time being.
From the perspective of preparation for the global event, there can be nothing worse than Rohit and Kohli clicking in most of the matches prior to the event. India needs to ensure that the middle order finds itself in pressure situations as many times as possible. India need to plan for a bad day because on a good day, Rohit and Kohli will see the team through.
For the Windies, the results in the T20Is have not gone as expected, but one cannot undermine their strength in this format. The team is equipped with power hitters who can demolish any bowling attack on a given day. In the current series, the return of Keiron Pollard is the biggest plus for them. Pollard brings in much-needed experience and can become the fulcrum around whom the others can display their array of shots. In the first T20I, he was the best batsmen of the match. He read the pitch well and shelved aggressive shots to ensure Windies had something on the board despite a batting collapse. Had one more player stood up to support him, the Windies might have challenged India, who struggled to chase 96.
In the second T20I, one can only speculate how close the Windies might have come to India’s total given Pollard was still at the crease when rain intervened.
With unavailability of key players like Andre Russell, West Indies have struggled to match the Indians in this series but a full strength Windies side will be among the favorites as the World Cup begins next year.