South Africa, 2007. It remains the only time India have won the World T20. It makes for some wonderment what the selectors had in mind when picking a side for that tournament, a format unknown to the Men in Blue until they played their first match in South Africa in 2006.
Nearly nine years later, the landscape has changed completely. When the selectors sat down to select the Indian squad for the 2016 World T20, they had a plethora of names to choose from. Each of them well qualified in the art of Twenty20 cricket, reflecting amply from the many statistics garnered from international cricket, the Indian Premier League, and lest we forget, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Perhaps, on Friday, it was all about skipper MS Dhoni taking his pick.
Back in 2007, handing him captaincy in the absence of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly was nothing more than a cheeky punt. That move from the selectors is yet another pointer of how they treated this format as an unknown. At the same time, in the present time’s context, it points to how well they know Dhoni today, and have come to trust his instinct.
For this squad has his stamp all over it, most pertinently in the manner Pawan Negi finds himself in the spotlight of Indian cricket. Four days ago, he was still bracing the reality of playing on the international stage against Sri Lanka. And now, his inclusion in the World T20 squad is a matter of intense national scrutiny. Roller coaster rides are slower in comparison.
At first glance, the Chennai Super Kings’ connection cannot be missed but look beyond it.Negi is a left-arm spinner; the kind Dhoni takes a liking to, from behind the stumps. Give him a slow turner, and a total to defend, throw in a couple good left-arm spinners and watch him weave some winning magic. Ravindra Jadeja and Yuvraj Singh are already present, so does Negi’s presence cause an imbalance to the squad?
That might not necessarily be the case. In Australia, Dhoni had talked about choosing players who can fulfill more than just one role. Sandeep Patil pretty much repeated the same words in the Friday press conference, stressing on picking players ‘who can bat at numbers 6, 7 & 8 while fulfilling multiple duties for the team’. A left-arm spinner, and a useful slogger (on evidence, better than Axar Patel certainly), Negi fits the bill perfectly.
That word ‘slogger’ gains significance here. It is the key area where team India has been strengthened, particularly when you compare how the last World T20 ended in Dhaka. Through that tournament, Virat Kohli’s imperious form carried the team to the finals. Apart from him, no other batsman really had a consistent hit in the middle, and that is the norm with a format like this. Even so, it reflected negatively when the Indian middle order was called upon, particularly in the final against Sri Lanka.
Now, compare this current squad with that 2014 one. Leaving aside the set batting order, the slogging duties rested primarily on Dhoni, Yuvraj and Raina. Beyond them, the lower order boasted only of Stuart Binny and Amit Mishra, with Jadeja to throw his bat around if needed. Most of the same names appear on the team sheet this time around as well. But the lower order does have more firepower, in the guise of Hardik Pandya and Negi, both of them boasting a healthy T20 strike-rate.
To facilitate this plan, there is expected to be a role reversal between Dhoni and Yuvraj. Up until 2014, the left-hander had to shoulder the big hitting responsibility with the skipper in-charge of finishing things. As seen through the Australian tour, Dhoni now prefers to come at number four if there are only a few overs remaining, leaving Yuvraj and Raina to bring up the rear. It was one of the primary reasons why Yuvraj didn’t get to bat in the first two T20Is in Adelaide and Melbourne.
“The top-order is playing well now, and in this form, Virat and Rohit (Sharma) take us deep in the innings. With wickets in hand and only 4-5 overs to go, it is my time to bat, to hit the big shots. If early wickets fall, depending on the situation we will send Raina and Yuvraj ahead of me, but otherwise batting lower allows them more freedom to express themselves,” Dhoni said, post the T20I series win in Melbourne.
It is a puzzle the Indian team management has been trying to solve for the past two years, but without much success in the ODI arena. The shortest format maybe a dumbed-down version of the same, yet allows a renewed approach.
As also showcased in Australia, the skipper has the option of bowling Pandya for a couple overs. That in turn allows an additional pace-bowling all-rounder in the side, in turn elongating the batting order until number 8, even possibly number 9. Furthermore, it allows a buffer in terms of firepower given that Dhoni and Yuvraj are no longer the mighty batsmen they once were, with Raina’s form the glue that will hold this middle order together.
It can be argued that this particular selection/strategy only replaces Binny with Pandya-Negi, thus hedging bets on their inexperience and domestic performances. No, instead, it diversifies the options available to the team management when a particular combination of batsmen is unable to fire, an aspect missing from 2014. The availability of an additional all-round slogging option in the playing eleven adds some much needed punch to the lower order.
In the end then, only one question remains. Is this squad good enough to win a title India last won in 2007? On paper, yes! Only time will tell though, for the unpredictability of the T20 format cannot be tided over easily.