September 2017. Two years have passed since India embarked on an experimental route, considering different permutations and combinations as preparations got underway for the 2019 ODI World Cup. Some sweeping changes were made, other things stayed constant through a journey of nearly two years.
It is a matter of time, isn’t it? In the shortest format, everything is so contracted. If you squeeze an ODI and play it in time-lapse mode, you achieve the perfect T20 model. It is perhaps with this thinking that the Indian team management has started their new home season. September 2019 – the road to 2020 T20 World Cup has begun.
In Dharamshala, skipper Virat Kohli had spoken about shifting goalposts to the ‘next big milestone’. It was almost akin to his discourse in Pallekele two years ago wherein he accepted the need for changes to India’s ODI set-up. It is almost second nature to him, this endless chopping and changing, this shuffling of ideas, and his mind – as a leader – is in a state of constant flux. It is also in complete contrast to how Kohli operates as a batsman – Zen-like, in one all-conquering mode.
Team India is a complete mirror image of their captain today, bringing to life cricket’s most well known adage. In their current situation, they are aware of the need to change shape constantly, and yet they are comfortable in that situation of discomfort. How else do you explain the likes of Deepak Chahar, Navdeep Saini and Washington Sundar stepping in for Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal with so much ease?
Add and subtract Krunal Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya over the course of two series in West Indies and now at home, and the modus operandi remains the same. Stay in the moment, do what needs to be done and consider the permutations at a later stage, when it matters most. The Indian skipper – with certain help from the team management and the selectors – tore up the prevalent white-balls and redrew them without as much of a blink, with quite the same results.
At no point did the South African batting line-up feel comfortable. There was Quinton de Kock’s odd flourish and Temba Bavuma steadied the ship, but the final attack never came. The first six overs fetched 39 runs, a second passage of six overs during the middle got only 44 – this was clutch-control bowling at its best, and you wouldn’t have known the difference in names if you didn’t watch or look up the scorecard.
Suddenly you have Sundar and Chahar as the new ball pairing, and Saini being used as the battering ram with his raw pace. It is surprising how comfortable Chahar feels in this role, wherein his four-over spell is bowled out at a stretch. There is Bumrah-like reliability in there, even if this comparison is staggering at the very outset.
Then, there is the ever-mercurial Hardik who provided the experience in Mohali on Wednesday night, ala Bhuvneshwar, and now he has an additional Pandya for support. Ravindra Jadeja is the glue that holds this new-look T20 attack together, backed up by some sensational fielding with captain Kohli himself showing the way with a stupendous catch.
The more things change, however, the more they stay the same. It is especially true of India’s white-ball strategy, and it is seen in how they have borrowed the bedrock of this experimentation from ODIs to T20Is without any botheration. Throughout that ODI experimental cycle, the Indian top-order stayed constant, and this strategy has now direct implication in the current T20I experimental scenario too.
There are keen differences between them as individual players. But when it comes to the concise nature of T20 cricket, Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma are essentially three different versions of the same batsman. And this ‘claim’ is deep rooted in the strike-rate argument of course, near similar in this format for the trio, so much so that a quick-starting KL Rahul is surprisingly warming the bench. Their batting blueprint is the same – get set, mix it up with a flurry of boundaries, bat out the majority of overs and take the game deep, changing gears with ease.
You can say this is also the ODI batting blueprint, in particular that aspect about batting deep. Only, in this shortest format, within the span of 20 overs, if one of Kohli, Rohit or Dhawan gets set, they are bound to finish the game nine times out of ten. As such, it didn’t matter when India lost two wickets in the space of 13 balls, including the set Dhawan and ever-careless Rishabh Pant.
And therein lies the obvious shortcoming herein too. While borrowing this batting plan from ODIs with all its top-order consistency, they also brought in the doubtful middle order. Pant’s struggles at number four (or wherever he bats in white-ball cricket to be honest) are starting to become too frequent, and then there is the odd placement of Shreyas Iyer (or Manish Pandey) at number five. It just doesn’t sit in well, and casts aspersions on the Indian batting strategy, especially with six full-time bowlers on the park (including Hardik).
When it works, it works well, as we have seen umpteen times in the past, and we did in Mohali on Wednesday too. When it doesn’t, that middle order and the short batting line-up will hurt India’s plans, mirroring the frailties that cost them the semi-final against New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup.
Until that fateful moment comes by though, Kohli, the team management and selectors can revel in the masterful design that is currently a beautiful balance between T20 experimentation and predictably consistent top-order batting.
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