With a flurry of astounding boundaries off Virat Kohli’s magical blade right at the death, Australia’s World T20 dreams popped like a pin being inserted into a balloon. For much of India’s stuttering chase of 161 in a virtual quarterfinal in Mohali, Australia looked likely to post a memorable upset victory until Kohli put on his cape and single-handedly propelled India to a six-wicket victory.
After playing so resolutely throughout against the odds, it was a cruel way for Australia to bow out of the tournament. You feel only the inimitable genius of Kohli, who somehow defied logic and arithmetic, could have achieved this tricky chase considering the stakes and pressure.
In many ways, Australia can feel unlucky that they ran into a phenomenon who is in the same rarefied realm of other superstar male athletes in their primes right now – Novak Djokovic, Lionel Messi and NBA’s Steph Curry.
Australia fought and were gallant in defeat. There was no disgrace losing to Kohli’s virtuoso performance, quite probably one of the all-time great T20 innings.
Still, after being so frustratingly close to a World T20 semi-final and part of what is shaping up as a wide open final four, Australia should be bitterly disappointed. If they take an honest look in the mirror, the Aussies will admit that their campaign was blighted by strange selections and bizarre tactics, which came to the fore against India.
Perhaps the biggest talking point will be captain Steve Smith’s reluctance to trust leg-spinner Adam Zampa, who starred against Bangladesh and Pakistan. After surprisingly calling on Zampa for just one over in their opening loss to New Zealand, it seemed Smith had wisely decided to roll the dice with his young spinner.
But at the crucial moment, Smith lost nerve and shied away from using Zampa, who had bowled two overs for a tidy 11 runs. You felt Smith was leaving Zampa for a late bowl in and the opportune moment to re-introduce him seemed to have arrived when MS Dhoni was new to the crease.
Instead, Smith relied on pacemen Josh Hazelwood and Nathan Coulter-Nile — although it must be said they both bowled well early — and renowned death bowler James Faulkner. It was an overwhelming failure, preyed upon by a ruthless Kohli. Perhaps Zampa would have been similarly useless against Kohli’s mystical powers too but it was a gamble worth taking.
Overlooking Zampa at a pivotal juncture of the campaign spoke of Australia’s inherent distrust of spinners in T20 cricket. They overlooked in their squad star Big Bash League (BBL) performer Cameron Boyce and Nathan Lyon, whose experience would have been invaluable.
Bizarrely, all-rounder Ashton Agar was selected as the second spinner even though his left-arm orthodox was rarely seen in the BBL. Agar’s selection underlined Australia’s arrogance in believing they could succeed without specialist spinners. Their mantra of versatility and relying on a slew of all-rounders backfired. Granted, the T20 format is entirely unpredictable but Australia’s lack of continuity was jarring. No one could rationally explain why the world’s No.1 ranked T20 batsman Aaron Finach didn’t play the opening two matches.
Unlike the ODI World Cup which is a much longer tournament, the World T20 is a blur and there is very precious little time to establish cohesion.
Australia felt very much like a manifestation of haphazard selections. The team lacked stability and rhythm. It was bewildering to see David Warner, most likely the player opposition teams fear the most, not opening. Accordingly, Warner had a highly disappointing tournament because he batted like someone unsure of his specific role. It was jarring to see him hesitant. Warner is so effective and dangerous opening because he is confident and comfortable in his role bludgeoning the new ball. In other words, he’s innately an opening batsman. You feel he just wants to get out there immediately; perhaps he overthinks when waiting for his turn to bat.
However, it is unfair to be critical of Warner’s replacement at the top, Usman Khawaja, who was Australia’s best batsman throughout albeit he teased rather than being substantial. But you sense he could have easily just shifted down a position without too many dramas.
Clearly, the batting — which was Australia’s undeniable strength – could have been more formidable and fluid with a different combination. Obviously, Australia were unsure of their identity.
It was as if Australia were experimenting with their team and in many respects they were. Leading up to the tournament, Australia played three games in South Africa in conditions totally contrasting to those in India. Before that, they played three ODIs at home against India in what was effectively tryouts for the World T20s. Shockingly, Australia only played one T20 match last year.
There is a whiff of poor planning and execution about all this, a notable contrast to Australia’s excellent strategising for ODI World Cups which they implement years in advance.
Simply, if they finally want to break their World T20 drought, Australia need to start respecting the format. The next World T20 will be played in Australia, so there will be extra incentive for them to belatedly get things right.
Australia have four long years to stew over another World T20 calamity.