Keep aside the odd expedition to Zimbabwe, and India’s averages with the ball in the recently-concluded series against the West Indies were the third best for them in a bilateral T20I contest of three or more matches. The Indian attack was so efficient that a wicket was taken for roughly every 20 runs West Indies scored.
In the process, India not only whitewashed the World T20 defending champions, but also hit upon their best formula for success in this format — a sharp bowling attack. Sides are often so focussed on finding the big hitters in the T20 format that they tend to forget the fact that if you have a strong bowling attack, you are ahead in the race even before the match has begun.
“As the adage predicts, batsmen win T20 matches. They produced 49 percent of match-winning performances as opposed to 33 percent by bowlers. If we relate the distribution of match-winning performances to the balance of a T20 team, then this equates to about 5.5 batsman, 2 all-rounders, and 3.5 out-and-out bowlers. This may seem fair but I would argue that bowlers are under-represented — 50 percent of the game is completed with the ball in hand,” Joe Harris, a performance analyst and part of Royal Challengers Bangalore's staff last season, had penned down in his piece.
There is a reason why Sunrisers Hyderabad are consistently among the top teams in the Indian Premier League (IPL) each season. They have an irresistible bowling unit with two very reliable options in Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Rashid Khan. As Harris points out in his piece, if you have three really good bowlers, you are more than likely to have a good attack unless your remaining couple of options are filth.
It is this magic formula that India accidentally managed to hit upon against West Indies, but perhaps the seeds for that were sown prior to the series. When the squads for the T20I assignments against West Indies and Australia were announced, there were concerns around Khaleel Ahmed, who had played one T20 for Sunrisers Hyderabad last season. Krunal Pandya's inclusion was very well received, for his exploits had demanded selection long before it actually materialised.
But, the selectors seemed to have had a clear vision of where they wanted this T20 bowling attack to head. India's attack in the shortest format has three exceptional bowling options in Bhuvneshwar, Jasprit Bumrah and Kuldeep Yadav, each reliable and threatening in their own way at different stages of an innings. They needed two to three bowlers or all-rounders to aid these three and chose their options very wisely.
Khaleel was tasked with the responsibility of taking the new ball alongside Bhuvneshwar. This left Bumrah, a good bowler at any stage of a T20 innings, to bowl in tandem with Kuldeep in the middle-overs and at the death, a double luxury they weren't able to afford when he opened the bowling. But then, they weren't silly enough to put too much pressure on Khaleel, which meant Umesh Yadav, who is an excellent power play bowler as he showed in the IPL, was also there as back-up in case plan A flopped.
Khaleel, though, stepped up pretty well in his primary role — to be threatening in the power plays. Khaleel bowled seven overs in the power play in the West Indies T20I series, gave away just 44 runs — an economy of 6.28 — and picked up three wickets. He wasn't very effective in the latter stages of the innings but India don't need him to be as long as he delivers up front.
In the middle overs, Krunal — one of the most economical T20 spinners in India — choked the run flow and allowed Kuldeep to bowl in his natural, aggressive manner. While India’s top-ranked T20I bowler Yuzvendra Chahal warming the bench had quite a few puzzled, it made perfect sense because as much as India needed wicket-takers, they required bowlers who could choke the run flow and there are few better at it than Krunal, although the selectors were careful enough to push in a back-up for him in the form of Washington Sundar, another in a similar mould.
Krunal picked up just one wicket in the series in three games but bowled at an economy of 6.50. Chahal, for all his wicket-taking abilities, concedes quite a few more runs — he has given away the second most number of sixes this year in T20Is — and will perhaps have to bide his turn after a rosy period.
Dan Weston, the owner of Sports Analytics Advantage and a player data expert, is not a huge fan of all-rounders taking place of proper bowlers to fill in for the remaining spots. “Having all rounders with poor bowling economy is a false economy for teams. Teams really haven’t mastered the value of wickets and value depth over quality bowling,” he says.
But he is quick to point out that Krunal's case is different. “I am amazed it took this long for Krunal to be picked. While I’m not a huge fan of all-rounders, he’s good enough to get in the team as a batsman/finisher alone, plus he also contributes with his bowling economy, so he’s different to a lot of pace all-rounders for example who are expected to go for 9 or 10 runs per over. I’m sure Krunal (bat+ball) beats Chahal (ball) anyway,” he concludes.
The inclusion of Khaleel and Krunal has bolstered the Indian attack by a fairly large margin. As it is, they have the services of three high quality T20 bowlers in Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar and Kuldeep. With Bumrah now freed up more for the middle and death overs, opposition teams are faced with a huge stumbling block — getting past three gun bowlers in Bumrah, Kuldeep and Krunal in the middle stage of a T20 innings. In addition to keeping the run rate low, they are extremely good at picking up wickets, a deadly combination to have.
Combine this with the fact that teams have to face Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah, both excellent with their yorkers and variations, in tandem in the death overs and you are suddenly not even thinking about the threat a batting line-up led by Virat Kohli holds.
The Indian bowling attack has aced the West Indian threat at home but that's hardly a large enough sample size. The three T20Is against Australia, masked by the fervour of the Tests following that, would test their bowling formula against some aggressive, Big Bash-ing batsmen. The World T20 is still a couple of years away but the stepping stones are being laid by India and so far it appears promising.
That said, much will depend on how Khaleel and Krunal live up to their initial impression in the three games Down Under.