There are a couple of really likable pointers about this English T20I side. First, they have a proper pace-centric attack, which is a rarity for the shortest format in India. At times, like on Thursday, it won’t work because the pitch turned out to be better than in the first three T20Is. You need more than one spinner in that scenario.
So, India duly posted 185-8, and this is where the second pointer comes in. Any of the English top-six batsmen can bat in the top-three, which provides explosive flexibility to their run-scoring ability. Currently, they have the ploy to use Jos Buttler up top, but with the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes, and Eoin Morgan to come, it sets up the game.
Thus, to see England come close — within 8 runs of India’s total — was no surprise. In fact, it was a positive for the Men in (dark) Blue. This victory — in the fourth T20I — was their best performance of this series, which is a glorified experimental run to the 2021 T20 World Cup. This series’ equalling win was near perfect in execution, particularly in how the Indian team would have liked the game to shape up.
Take Shardul Thakur, for instance. When the series began a week ago, he was in the playing eleven more for his batting ability than bowling. With Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja absent, and Hardik Pandya’s bowling fitness still questionable, it made sense to pick a pacer who could contribute with the bat as well. His selection even prompted a change in India’s tactics of picking three full-time pacers in T20Is.
You could see the loopholes in this plan when England won in the first and third T20s. You could also spot the positives when Thakur’s slow off-cutters helped India win the second match. This facet of his bowling has now propelled him into orbit — another match-winning contribution on Thursday as India drew level and suddenly Thakur is now in contention for a World Cup berth. On current evidence, he is now ahead of Navdeep Saini and T Natarajan, if not Deepak Chahar.
Of course, Thakur wasn’t the primary reason for this victory. If optimal runs weren’t on the board, England would have chased it down easily. The fact that India didn’t need big contributions from Rohit Sharma or Virat Kohli to put up 180-plus should be pleasing. For, Suryakumar Yadav put his hand up (along with Shreyas Iyer) and gave a peek into what the Indian batting line-up could look like during that upcoming World Cup.
Imagine playing your first international game, a moment you have waited for your entire life. And then, after an endless wait, you didn’t even get to bat. Instead, the lasting memory of your debut is poor fielding — a couple of dropped catches included. And then you are left out in the next game, with the endless wait beginning again. From Suryakumar Yadav’s perspective, it is difficult to envisage which was more tiresome — to get that elusive first cap or to get that second one where he could actually make a difference?
Cricketers like SKY are the norm and not the exception. There are thousands and thousands in India’s domestic wilderness but mostly 30 are in the international reckoning at a given point. The likes of SKY then need to fight for their piece of the pie or risk getting lost in the wilderness forever.
A tournament like the IPL has helped in this regard — it has helped Indian cricket put a price on players who would otherwise escape the spotlight. It has helped them come forward and given them a stage to perform, wherein their skills are valued, and wherein the missing links in their gameplay are found and rectified. The IPL has become a factory, one which produces highly-skilled, finished products, and raring to go on the international stage.
SKY’s career is as much a testament to what the IPL means for Indian cricket, as it is a reward for the hard work he has put in himself. It is easy for his ilk to lose hope and confidence, and yet, to keep going despite repeated neglect from the selectors, takes more than just a strong will. It takes more than skill. It takes an extreme measure of self-belief that perhaps merges into resolve — one that you and I cannot even fathom.
It isn’t about charting his journey with Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians anymore. If you watch the IPL season after season — and you probably do — there is nothing unfamiliar about SKY. Can finish games? Check. Can hit big? Check. Can anchor at number three? Check. Can anchor at number five? Check.
The question, at this juncture, is twofold — why did he wait so long for a chance to come forth, and now that he has proven himself, what next?
First, he waited so long because breaking into team India isn’t an easy proposition. You could do a million things right, and just luck might not come your way. It is the simplest explanation and in SKY’s case, it is probably the most pertinent one. Take last November, for instance, when he helped Mumbai Indians to a fifth title. By rights, and by rewards, he should have been on the plane to Australia. But he didn’t take that flight — why? Perhaps, because the outgoing selection panel wanted to play safe and pick a squad that had done the job in the past.
These small things matter. It is akin to leaving SKY out in the third T20I. Rohit simply had to come back and they couldn’t leave out Ishan Kishan after his maiden half-century helped India win. It is just the run of luck, at times, and any Indian cricketer knows it only too well.
So, again, what happens now? Well, for starters, we are not going to forget that first-ball-six for a long time. Further, taking a cue from the above, SKY, like Kishan, cannot be left out.
His half-century has showcased the missing versatility in the Indian batting line-up, and now there is an alternate plan beyond the opening pair and Kohli at number three. His aggressive knock, despite losing the big guns, has given an insight into how India can develop their batting strategy in the coming months.
With the World Cup firmly in sight, SKY should be part of every T20I the Men in Blue play from here onwards.
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