Watching the post show on Star Sports, after South Africa pummelled India to deny them another T20I bilateral series at home, West Indies’ legend Brian Lara made a standout point. It was about India’s current experimental phase, and in particular the first-ever decision to bat after winning the toss at M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru in a T20I.
“Maybe at some point, the Indian top-order of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan needs to make way and allow other batsmen some time,” said Lara.
Two points stand out here. First, what has happened at Bengaluru is a direct consequence of India’s batting approach in limited-overs’ cricket. There is an undeniable top-order dependency, and it has now been transferred from ODIs to T20Is without much bother. The strategy is to allow the top-three to bat time and take the game to its proper conclusion in the shortest format. More often than not, especially when chasing, it works.
The stability in this top-order allows for some consistency, which in turn lends into experimentation all along the playing XI, whether with bat or ball. Post the 2019 World Cup, this point has been underlined in every T20I India has played. And this is where the second point emanates, manifesting itself into the seamless transfer of a middle-order problem from ODIs to T20Is.
That, along with an incoherent batting plan, was the key reason for India’s loss in Bengaluru. When Kohli won the toss and said he ‘wanted to challenge his batting line-up’, the onus was on them to make proper use of 20 overs available to set a challenging target at a ground where chasing is easy. Instead, India’s batsmen delivered a one-trick showing which denied them any semblance of a par-total on batting surface at the Chinnaswamy.
It has to begin at the top, again. Post the series against the West Indies, a question mark was raised over the viability of Kohli, Dhawan and Rohit batting together in the T20Is because they are pretty much similar in terms of building an innings. The team management responded with a change in strategy in this South Africa series – over the last two T20Is, there has been a push towards making attacking starts, especially by the two openers.
At Mohali, the openers smacked 33 off 22 balls. At Bengaluru, they put on 22 off 14. Quick starts both, but different from the ODI setting. It was Rohit who took the charge straight-on even if he failed to carry on. Furthermore, Dhawan’s 40 off 31 balls and 36 off 25 balls came at a quicker pace than he is currently used to in T20 cricket. In the last two IPL seasons, the left-hander had noticeably used slower starts in exchange for more consistency in terms of scoring runs through a season. So much so, it helped KL Rahul gain prominence as the more attacking opener in the shortest format.
As aforementioned then, these last two T20 innings underline a semblance of more attacking intent from the opening combination. It is also seen in the manner of Dhawan’s dismissal in both innings. Set after a start, he simply carried on attacking and holed out in both circumstances, albeit thanks to a stunning catch at Mohali. Even Kohli, who is so tight in his stroke play and doesn’t use too many flashy aerial strokes, holed out in the second T20I, hitting the ball towards the longest boundary at Chinnaswamy.
The point is the aggressive intent in approach, and how in the garb of experimentation in Bengaluru, the Indian think-tank was hedging its bets on a single trick. The top-order trio pushed hard – full of attacking intent – as if they had been given a license to deflect their usual responsibility to the latter batsmen. Come to think of it, this unusual attacking approach was the bedrock of India’s batting failure on Sunday night.
Simply put, with Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli gone early, India’s middle and lower order lacked in experience and more importantly the gumption to dig themselves out of a tricky situation. It was a proper set-up, almost as per Lara’s wishes – the scorecard read 68-3 in 8.3 overs when the top-order was dusted, allowing Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer and others enough time to resurrect the innings. It didn’t happen.
That both Pant and Iyer came out to bat at number four reflects on the confused state of India’s dressing room at present. Post-match, Kohli revealed that ‘Iyer was slated to bat at four before the tenth over, Pant afterwards’. The message was perhaps lost in translation, even as both found themselves at the crease in the space of eight deliveries before the innings’ halfway mark.
It brings us to the core of this middle-order issue. The selectors and the team management wants Pant to succeed, you and I, every one watching, we all want him to score lots of runs, for he has the right mix of exuberance and talent to do so. What he is sorely lacking in at the moment is temperament.
A properly attacking number four on the back of a consistent top-three reflects on a robust T20 batting line-up, but in its current avatar, this formula isn’t working. Pant is a sitting duck at the moment – looking to play cross-batted shots, but when tightened up on the off side, he struggles to rotate strike. Inevitably, he goes for the big one and they are not coming off just yet, leading to poor dismissals.
South Africa played to his weakness on Sunday night, and he obliged, going after a half volley, thus holing out. Cynics will argue that the ball was there to be hit – yes. But as per match situation, at 90-3 with 7.2 overs remaining, perhaps he should have guided it along the ground for a single and looked to last an entire innings. Some day, a mature Pant will do so. He is not that batsman at present.
In turn, his poor dismissal overshadowed Iyer’s own misjudgement. Immediately after Pant’s exit, he was tempted into an expansive shot and was stumped belying the maturity he has shown in the past two months to elevate himself in the team management’s books.
Thereafter, it was about recovery – Hardik Pandya seemed too rusty given his long break and Ravindra Jadeja cannot perform batting miracles every time.
The others – Krunal Pandya, Washington Sundar, etc. – do not matter much when the score reads 92-5.
The bottom-line is a simple one. This one-off loss, and a drawn series with South Africa at home, doesn’t matter in the 2020 T20 World Cup scheme of things. But make no mistake, India’s experimentation has just begun and it is a long way from reaching any sort of end-point.
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