There is a saying in football that sometimes champions ‘need to grind out results’. It holds true from the league-era where firm favourites for the title need to toil hard for a 1-0 win at their home ground, or play a tough 0-0 draw away as visitors to lowly-ranked sides. If a side can overcome these inevitable dips in form during the course of a long football season, they assuredly end up victorious.
Cricket, in comparison, doesn’t have international leagues. But ICC world events have a decent duration (not compared to a football season of course!). The ODI World Cup in 2015 was stretched over almost seven weeks, and this 2016 World T20 will be spanning over just less than four weeks. For the 50-over tournament, the matches are sometimes spaced as much as 5-6 days apart and it becomes imperative for teams to carry on momentum.
Can momentum be retained in T20 cricket though? Isn’t the slam-bang format all about seizing moments? You can win quite a few games in a row, like India did, scoring 10 victories in 11 matches in the build-up to this World T20. But then clinical performers ides like New Zealand may come along, pick three spinners on a turning track, bamboozle the hosts in their backyard and shred the favourites’ tag to bits. Make no mistake, that shocking 47-run defeat shattered India’s self-confidence, not to mention their run-rate as well.
It has been a recovery ride since, with high-stakes games against Pakistan and Bangladesh panning out as Team India wanted. You could even say they have done well to ‘grind out’ results, but have they regained their aura? Have they recovered from this ‘dip’ in the winning run built up meticulously over the past two-plus months?
The answer is a qualified one. Yes, because they have won two in a row, and have got four points in the bag. Yes, because they have played poorly and still won their last two matches.
No, because there needs to be one more victory, one that stands in their way to the semi-final spot. And, no, because India have made far too many errors in their last three matches to feel comfortable going into that all-important clash against Australia on Sunday.
This list of errors began from the toss in Nagpur. New Zealand dropped their prime pacers and picked three spinners. India kept Harbhajan Singh and Pawan Negi on the bench and went in with a pace all-rounder in Hardik Pandya. They were a bowler, nay a spinner short thereafter, despite Suresh Raina’s superlative spell.
That, and some poor batting, cost India the match. If the Black Caps got their team selection right and the home team did not, it simply goes to say that they assessed their own conditions wrong.
Further proof isn’t needed but here too, a worrying point emerges. In Kolkata, against Pakistan, the same playing XI took the field as once again the true nature of the pitch wasn’t realized. When was the last time India failed to read two successive home pitches?
“We are playing the same team but I have been wrong about the pitch twice (already),” MS Dhoni admitted at the toss against Bangladesh. India won but let it be said here, without any doubt, that they played poorly in Bengaluru.
The failure of the team management to get a good reading on the pitches puts a question mark on the playing XI. Are India playing their most ideal side, suited to the pitches rolled out for them?
In the last couple seasons whenever India have failed to counter spin, three batsmen in Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Dhoni have still managed to stand out, but at different times. But only two of them are in the playing XI right now, with Rahane reduced to warming the bench. Isn’t he a better option for No.4, on spinning tracks where Raina finds it tough to get going, thus heaping more pressure on Kohli to anchor the top order?
Dropping Raina isn’t easy though. He provides the second off-spin option, given as R Ashwin bowls a majority of his overs in the first power play. Instead, can the top-order be made a little stronger with Rahane replacing Shikhar Dhawan at the opening slot? The left-hander doesn’t even bowl, much like his replacement, who is also a better fielder. From the outside, it is a tempting choice given that Rohit Sharma has suddenly gone off boil.
Even so, there is certain rigidity in India’s tactics. And it became clear in the manner Dhoni answered the Rahane question in Kolkata. “A few low-scoring innings and there are questions about a player’s form. (But) in a tournament like this, we need to back the players we pick,” said the skipper.
His words hold true for a World T20 that is usually played across only three venues. That was the norm until 2014. This time around there is this added challenge of countering conditions across as many as eight venues. If India make it to the final at Eden Gardens, they will have played at five venues.
If New Zealand can change their combination to suit the demands of the prevailing conditions, what is stopping India from doing so?
It becomes even more intriguing when the lack of overs bowled by Yuvraj Singh is taken into consideration. Dhoni is an intuitive captain who likes to have a lot of bowling options available to him on turning tracks. In fact, Yuvraj was included in this World T20 squad on that premise alone, not his average batting form.
It is baffling that he hasn’t bowled a single over in this World T20.
The underlying point is that by some chance India are still in control of their destiny in this tournament. But they have been negligent, even complacent, making a number of mistakes until this juncture. Pressure paid off against Pakistan, and Bangladesh were too inexperienced to make use of a mad situation. The road ahead gets tougher though, starting with Australia.
Can the Men in Blue learn to cut down on their errors, in time for that do or die game in Mohali?