India vs Australia: Team selection, middle-order in focus as Virat Kohli's men fight to keep series alive in Melbourne

Melbourne: A day before the first T20I, Australian skipper Aaron Finch was asked about the advantage of playing the shortest format ahead of the four-Test series. “T20 cricket is fast-paced, will allow us to be aggressive and express ourselves.”

India are 1-0 down in the three match T20 series and the onus will be on Virat Kohli to put India's campaign back on track. AFP

India are 1-0 down in the three match T20 series and the onus will be on Virat Kohli to put India's campaign back on track. AFP

When the same question was put to Virat Kohli, he too said that it was an opportunity for the younger Australian players to come to the fore and surprise the opposition.

Surprise it was, indeed, at Brisbane then. Anyone and everyone spoke of how India were the favourites going into not only this series, but the entire tour itself. Almost as if Australia were just eager to roll over and hand everything on a platter to Virat Kohli so he could proclaim a famous overseas win for Indian cricket. Not quite!

Roll back pages of cricket history, and ask yourself, when have Australia made it easy? Ever? For anyone? India learnt this the hard way at the Gabba as the hosts threw themselves at everything and their fielding was the key difference when it came to victory and loss. It was a point being proven. On paper, player versus player, there is no denying that India are the better side. But cricket, as you know, isn’t played theoretically.

Australia, at present, are like a caged tiger. The whole world is against them, laughing at them, and not feeling an ounce of pity because, well, they brought it upon themselves with their self-centred approach of ‘playing it hard, our way’. From among those watching, there is an intense desperation to see them suffer – at least it feels that way. And their faithful fans here fear the worst – ask anyone from the immigration officer to the coffee vendor to the average guy/girl walking on the street.

T20Is then presented an opportunity for Australia to engage India in a manner that is increasingly well known across the world. This format – the shortest one – reduces the time factor in cricket. The length of any game of cricket is a prime factor in playing our strengths and weaknesses of any team. Bangladesh and Afghanistan will struggle against India in Test cricket, but hand them the white ball and they become that much more competitive.

The limitation of time in T20 cricket makes it one-dimensional – see ball, hit ball. It is pretty simple with other factors becoming secondary. In such a set-up, it wasn’t surprising that this current Australian side – clearly second best in terms of resources – was able to put more than a serious challenge with bat and ball. Furthermore, as mentioned above, they raised fielding levels which is the one trait not affected by time frame and thus hoodwinked India into defeat, surprising one and all.

1-0 – bam! Now, India find themselves in an odd position. Going in as favourites 72 hours ago, they are now fighting to save the series. Let it be said here that losing to Australia is never embarrassing, but the build-up to this contest has been very unique.

This T20 contest is inconsequential in the long run, but losing this – which would also snap India’s unbeaten streak in T20I series since July 2017 – will pose questions about preparation, mental fatigue and overseas performances. Questions, the kind of which are, maybe, not needed at this stage of the tour.

So, what do India need to do in order to avoid going down 2-0 in Melbourne?

The first pointer is always about team selection. It is not to say that Kohli got it completely wrong in Brisbane, but picking Krunal Pandya ahead of Yuzvendra Chahal did raise an eyebrow or two. With 44 wickets in 27 matches, the leggie boasts of a phenomenal wicket-taking record in T20 cricket. More importantly, when bowling in partnership with Kuldeep Yadav, he is not averse to playing second fiddle and holding one end up.

This is what he primarily did in England, while Yadav was wreaking havoc on Eoin Morgan and company this past summer. India have benefitted immensely from this wrist spin duo over the past couple seasons that it is a wonderment to see them even contemplate leaving either Chahal or Yadav out in a live overseas contest. Especially in favour of Pandya, who was only playing his first match in Australian conditions!

The argument herein can be that he provides extra batting to the Indian line-up, which can be vital in close encounters. It didn’t work in Brisbane, albeit that cannot be a sole argument against it. In general though, the nature of T20 cricket is such that if the top five batsmen cannot score enough runs, the number seven batsman won’t be able to help your case. And this is where India faltered in optimising their team balance. Will they revert to formula now?

The only other change to be remotely considered is KL Rahul. The 2018 IPL season was golden for him, but that seems like a long time ago now. He has been scratchy across all formats off late, never mind the hundred in the Oval Test versus England. There isn’t enough consistency about his game at the moment that invokes reliability given how India are so dependent on their top-order.

India need to ask themselves this: in a do-or-die game, do they continue to back Rahul, even if means sticking the top-order into third gear while he scratches around for lost form? Or do they move Kohli back to his original number three spot and bring in Manish Pandey, who is currently out of favour.

Do you know what the bewildering part is? Possibly nobody anticipated that India would find themselves in such a position – must get selection right, must win – so early on this Australian tour.

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Updated Date: Nov 23, 2018 09:50:46 IST

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