India end 2020 as the best-performing team in men’s T20Is. A 12-run loss at Sydney prevented them from levelling the longest unbeaten streak in the format; their last defeat had come exactly one year ago, on 8 December 2019.
Since the end of the 2019 World Cup, no team has had a better run in men’s T20Is – India have 17 wins and only four defeats in this period; the next-best side, England, have 11 wins and five defeats.
India’s latest triumph also furthers a distinctly proud record Down Under. Apart from a one-off match in 2008, India are unbeaten in four T20I series in Australia; Australia’s success rate in T20Is at home versus all other teams is over 70% – against India, that figure comes down to 33.3%.
From these numbers, you’d reckon India are primed for a shot at glory at the T20 World Cup, which they are scheduled to host 11 months from now. You’re not wrong: there’s no doubting that India will enter that tournament as one of the favourites.
But then, don’t India enter most global tournaments as ‘one of the favourites’? Runners-up, semi-finalists, semi-finalists, runners-up, semi-finalists. You know what run that is.
It’s a run that this Indian unit – undoubtedly the most consistent of all Indian white-ball assemblies – is desperate to end.
For that, the finer margins need to be considered, addressed and tackled.
Bullish bilaterals: Dangerously deceptive
You only need to look back at the most recent ICC event.
India entered the 2019 World Cup with a run of 38 wins and only 13 defeats since the end of the 2017 Champions Trophy; they won 10 out of 12 series they played (including the Asia Cup). Within this timeframe, India beat New Zealand 2-1 at home and 4-1 away, the latter coming months ahead of the World Cup.
You know how it ended.
That’s the thing with streaks in the age of endless bilaterals. What are they, even, without context?
It’s laudable, of course, to win a certain number of games or series without defeat against any opponent, but let’s look beneath the 9-1 win-loss that India finish the year with.
Sri Lanka, who lost 2-0 in India in January, have won four games out of 14 since July 2019. New Zealand, who were swept 5-0 in their own den, have won six out of 16 in the same period.
Australia have stronger numbers, but let’s not forget that they were without David Warner and Pat Cummins for the entire series, and without Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood for two-thirds of it.
Yes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. And that’s alright – as long as you aren’t deceived by your own ‘dominance’. And as long as you’re utilising each opportunity presented to you by preparing yourself for the endgame.
Why aren’t India batting first more often?
Ahead of the deciding third T20I against South Africa at Bengaluru in 2019, Virat Kohli, in a step away from the usual, opted to bat, and offered a view to a longer-term focus.
“I know it’s a chasing ground… but heading into the World Cup, we want to strengthen areas and put ourselves under pressure. Of course results are always going to be a priority, but we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone with the World Cup coming up.”
India lost that game by nine wickets, only managing to put 134 on the board as South Africa earned their share of the series.
Kohli has won six tosses since in T20Is – India haven’t batted first in any of these games. Even on Tuesday, with the series already in the bag, India asked Australia to take first strike.
Since the end of the last World T20, in 2016, India have won 22 out of 29 games while chasing; batting first, they have 21 wins out of 32.
It’s not a bad record, by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s an area of their T20 game India have acknowledged they need to work upon – and there’s not a huge number of games left to do the same.
Repeat over and over: Approach > Average
If a team scores more than nine an over in the Powerplay and more than 12.5 an over in the death overs, in a target of 185-odd, they would be required to score less than eight runs an over through the middle period to be home.
In the third T20I, India got 55 runs from the Powerplay, and 63 from the last five overs. Between overs 7 and 15, they tallied 56.
In that eventually game-defining period, Virat Kohli – who entered the middle overs with 31 runs off 21 balls already under his belt – added 34 runs from 31 balls.
In the second game of the series, as India got to their target of 195 with two balls to spare, Steven Smith would have surely wondered about the cost of his under-par effort – 46 runs off 38 balls, on a day when the rest of the Australian innings went about at 10.8 runs per over. Even on Tuesday, Smith’s would have been the match-losing innings had India reached their target – 24 off 23 balls, in Australia’s score of 186.
Undisputed ‘GOATs’ elsewhere, the two finest batsmen of this generation have shown that they can struggle to stay afloat in the shortest format – not just in this series, and not even in just the IPL that preceded it.
That’s the thing with this format. A batter’s attitude, aptitude, altitude – and in particular, average – doesn’t matter half as much as their approach.
KL Rahul’s 670 runs in IPL 2020 might have won him the Orange Cap, but his sub-130 strike rate had more of a bearing on Kings XI Punjab’s final standing in the tournament.
In two successive World T20s, Kohli’s Player-of-the-Tournament-winning heroics haven’t been enough for India – because the sub-par efforts of those around him have had a greater impact on the colour of India’s medal.
On the flip-side, consider the team with the most IPL titles and the only team with multiple T20 World Cup crowns. Surely you’ve spotted something in common to the batting methods deployed by the Mumbai Indians and the West Indies?
In India’s case, this isn’t a commentary on Kohli alone – because his T20I strike rate, of 138.43, isn’t that problematic.
But consider the T20Is strike rates of those in the mix for the top five positions: Rohit Sharma 138.78, Shikhar Dhawan 128.28, KL Rahul 144.92, Shreyas Iyer 130.79, Manish Pandey 126.15.
In the middle overs of T20s in 2020, Kohli has a scoring rate of 6.91 runs per over; the corresponding figures for Iyer and Pandey are 6.93 and 5.94, respectively.
That’s potentially cataclysmic.
Since the start of 2019, with a qualifier of 500 runs and 25 innings in T20s, only nine Indians have a strike rate of 140 or more. They are Hardik Pandya, Rahul Tewatia, Sanju Samson, Devdutt Padikkal, Suryakumar Yadav, Prithvi Shaw, Mayank Agarwal, Manish Pandey and Ishan Kishan.
That’s just food for thought.
What’s an unfunny joke? India’s fielding
1st T20I: Aaron Finch dropped by Manish Pandey; D’Arcy Short dropped by Virat Kohli.
2nd T20I: Matthew Wade dropped by Hardik Pandya and Virat Kohli.
3rd T20I: Steven Smith stumping chance missed by KL Rahul; Glenn Maxwell dropped by Deepak Chahar and Yuzvendra Chahal.
Seven missed chances in three 20-over games – and that’s only counting outright chances.
It followed from an equally-abysmal display in the ODIs, where, in the first game alone, India’s missed opportunities cost them 154 runs.
What’s worse is that this isn’t a new, post-lockdown phenomenon either; fielding issues plagued India during the ODI series whitewash in New Zealand, and stuck out like a sore thumb during an otherwise successful home white-ball season last year too.
Catches win fewer matches in T20s than the old adage would have us believe, but if you go about handing two chances per game to top teams, you’re likely to pay sooner than later.
The find of the summer Down Under: T Natarajan
The story warms the insides on every hearing, but even without any consideration for emotion, the performances of Thangarasu Natarajan in his maiden series as an Indian cricketer are exceptional.
In a series where all other pacers conceded 9.89 runs per over, Natarajan’s economy rate was a miserly 6.92. The debutant returned six wickets at less than 14 per scalp; the rest of India’s pacers combined for a haul of three wickets at nearly 80.
In the last two games, where Australia scored at an overall run rate of 9.50, Natarajan conceded 53 runs from his eight overs (while picking up three wickets).
Over the course of the series, Natarajan kept Glenn Maxwell – Australia’s destroyer-in-chief throughout the white-ball leg of the tour – down to 10 runs off 13 balls, and knocked him over twice.
The yorkers were nailed on, as they have been through this rise to the top, the cutters were ever-confusing, and he was able to use the short-ball wisely too.
“He’s been the guy who has stood up and really delivered under pressure, which is outstanding for the fact that he’s playing his first few games at the international level,” said Kohli as he heaped praise on his newest weapon – one who could yet form such a vital piece of the bowling puzzle for India.
The left-arm angle, the consistency with the yorkers, and the ability to bowl at the death: this is as close to what Kohli and co. might have conjured if they were making up a pacer in a lab.
“...a left-arm bowler is always an asset for any team. So if he can bowl that well consistently it will be a great thing for us heading into the World Cup next year,” Kohli added.
Earn a first India call-up for a T20I series in Australia. Get the maiden India cap in the preceding ODIs – and make a mark to help the team win their only game of the series. Go on to announce your arrival to the world as an architect of the T20I series win.
So far, blow by blow, Natarajan’s India story has mirrored that of Jasprit Bumrah. Within two months of his return from Australia, Bumrah was a shining light in the Indian pace attack at the 2016 World T20.
Natarajan, if his path is to continue similarly, still has more than a few months – of waiting, and working – to confirm his berth in India’s World Cup plans. But if he continues to take the steps, and strides, he has in recent months, you just know he’s earning that ticket.
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India will be forced to field a second-string bowling attack with all their premier pacers, including Jasprit Bumrah and spin-bowling all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja ruled out with injuries.
Breaking his run of poor scores, Smith played some attacking shots and marched to an unbeaten 31 by the close of play on the opening day of the third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Labuschagne, however, credited the Indian bowlers for being disciplined early on and hardly giving away any scoring opportunities.