It had to end like this. With another batting collapse against spin, England finish their India tour without any silverware to show for their effort. Just like the Test series, England seemed to have a non-existent lower middle order when put under pressure against spin.
Unlike the Test series, though, England did turn up for the white ball leg of their tour. Since 2015 World Cup, England have overhauled their ODI and T20 approach and have achieved great success in both the formats. While India looked a more settled team in Test cricket, England looked more assured of their approach in ODIs and T20s. After the first T20, it appeared as if England are going to have an upper hand in this format. They had better all-rounders and batsmen who can go hell for leather right from the word go.
India had to tinker with their combination and approach, and use their experience and better knowledge of the conditions to their advantage in winning both limited-over series. However, they are still far from a T20 side that is going to pose challenges to the opposition on a consistent basis in all conditions.
It was India’s bowling that brought them back in the series. Virat Kohli played to his team’s strength and had clearer plans in a format that doesn’t allow you enough time to revert to a plan B.
Two wicket-taking leg-spinners on pitches that assist spin is a great luxury to have in T20s. Kohli could also count on Ashish Nehra and Jasprit Bhumrah, who knew all the tricks for pitches that are two-paced. They say cricket is a batsman’s game but you can still win games consistently if you have bowlers that don’t give any freedom to the opposition batsmen.
The real question marks hover over India’s batting line-up in this format. It starts right at the top with Kohli deciding to open the batting for India, something he has been immensely successful at in the IPL. Kohli seems far too precious for India’s batting plans to get out playing a rash stroke in the power play overs. At Royal Challengers Bangalore, he had experienced players like AB de Villiers and Shane Watson to follow him in the middle order, a luxury he doesn’t have while playing for India. Once Rohit Sharma is back in the team, Kohli may settle back at his preferred number three position in T20s.
Suresh Raina may continue to float up and down the order. T20 format brings the best out of him as a player and he has the game to settle into any role the team decides for him.
A resurgent Yuvraj Singh has shown that he still has that ability to play those big shots he was once famous for. With a clear mind and clear swing, Yuvraj is still one of the most difficult batsmen in the world to contain when he is on a roll. But, he still has a tendency to get stuck in the middle overs especially against spin. We tend to have a poor memory of T20 internationals since we play so few of them but the way he got stuck in his innings of 4 off 12 balls in the second T20 at Nagpur was reminiscent of the way his inability to rotate the strike in his innings of 11 off 30 in the 2014 WT20 final, which eventually cost us the game.
In his post-match interview on Wednesday, Yuvraj reckoned that “You always have time in T20”. But this is only true if you can get singles and twos while doing that. Dot balls these days play such a decisive roles in the outcome of T20s that bowling figures now include a dot-ball column. “Taking time” in the middle overs is fine, but doing it at the cost of playing too many dot balls is risky business.
This brings us to India’s number four in the last match, a man who runs between the wickets like a cheetah on steroids. The question of MS Dhoni batting above Yuvraj should have been settled on that night in Mumbai in 2011 when India won the World Cup. It was a decision so pivotal in Dhoni’s career that his movie biopic has him talking to Gary Kirsten about it as the first scene. Yet, burdened by the responsibility of captaincy, the man from Ranchi continued to bat lower down the order since India lacked a finisher who can fit into his role.
Kohli hinted at promoting Dhoni up the order in his first interview after taking over ODI and T20 captaincy. Finally, in his sixth game under Kohli, the former Indian captain did come up the order and played an innings that should settle his batting number for the rest of his career.
In the post-match presentation, Kohli mentioned that he wanted Dhoni to bat higher but the latter himself thinks that him batting lower down gives the team better balance. Dhoni isn’t the captain anymore but still remains a team man. Kohli at three and Dhoni at four in ODIs and T20s will give two of the best runners in the world more chances to bat together, something both of them enjoy.
Dhoni himself has a tendency to slow down in the middle overs at times but unlike Yuvraj, he can always get away from the strike. He is also going for more big hits early on in his innings as promised to none other than his old friend Yuvi in that brief twitter interview.
Team India needs to do whatever it takes to convince Dhoni to bat at number four for the rest of his career. If Dhoni himself isn’t convinced then Kohli can throw a tantrum, Kumble can sit on a hunger strike, and rest of the team can file a petition on change.org. We have been tantalised enough with the possibilities Mr Dhoni, we are not letting you ride into the sunset on your motorbike without a last hurrah.