“The dream is diminished for Carlos Brathwaite.”
The words of Ian Bishop, calling the final act of a thriller between New Zealand and West Indies at Old Trafford in Manchester, were among the more iconic lines from a sea of commentary pearls on display during the recently-concluded ICC Men’s World Cup 2019. Brathwaite had played one of the innings of the competition, to pull off one of the great escapes of the summer, only to fall short at the final hurdle, attempting a finish not too dissimilar from his World T20-winning heroics from 2016.
“Is this the World Cup? It’s Martin Guptill! Is this the final?”
Another viral utterance from the commentary box this past summer in England, from another Ian (Smith, of New Zealand, this time), in another game at Old Trafford involving New Zealand, would ring the final bell to India’s fortunes – at the end of another near-Houdini act – at a World Cup they entered as joint-favourites.
As MS Dhoni trudged off the field in Manchester (for one last time, who knows?), having been run-out in the face of a daunting chase for the second straight World Cup semi-final, India’s 2019 dream diminished.
The dream will have to wait for four more years before 2023 comes along and they hope to become the fourth successive hosts to be crowned men’s ODI champions.
Aside from having been hosts of the quadrennial showpiece event, another thing tied together India in 2011, Australia in 2015 and England in 2019 – a meticulously thought-out and equally intricately implemented road-map for the four years that would lead them to become world champions.
And while India’s class of 2019 don’t deserve to be met with the ‘post-mortems’ being carried out on some TV networks across the country, the team’s brains trust would surely have recognised one area where they let themselves down: not allowing their entire ‘core group’ ample enough time to be used to the rigours of international 50-over cricket coming into this World Cup (would Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya have played the same shots they did in the middle overs of the semi-final run-chase if they were 48 and 98 innings into their careers, as opposed to eight and 38, respectively? One would assume not).
Which places quite tangible importance to the decision-making process at Friday’s selection meet for a tour that is certainly not likely to enthuse many followers in this cricket-crazy nation.
Trips to the West Indies no longer send India’s shiniest stars into a state of frenzy over potentially defining their careers – heck, that had stopped more than a decade ago. This, instead, is now one of those platforms to accelerate the ‘A’-setup boys into the international fold, while allowing the high-profile cream some time off from a packed calendar.
And therein comes the earliest of chances to blood the potential suitors to India’s class of 2023, over six limited-overs internationals across the Caribbean islands; more importantly, to set the ball rolling for this next four-year plan, while acting upon the lessons learned from what was, at large, a successful four-year term that only just missed hitting the final crescendo (India were, at the end of it all, one of only two teams to keep a win-loss ratio above two from the end of the 2015 World Cup to the end of the 2019 edition; the only team with a better record being new world champions England).
Lesson 1: Raw seeds might bear IPL fruits, but the WC is a higher-hanging beast
KL Rahul had only batted in the top-order on nine occasions in ODIs prior to the 2019 World Cup, and five such instances against teams not called Zimbabwe or Afghanistan had yielded all of 54 runs; Rishabh Pant batted as many times during this World Cup as he had in all ODI cricket coming into his 13th-hour addition to the squad.
Neither of the two can be doubted in any capacity with respect to potential – but unless you’re someone with Bumrah or Archer printed on the back of your kit, the World Cup is a different monster to stand up to early on in your career.
India’s squad for their bid for a third world title eventually comprised of six players who made their ODI debuts after the 2015 World Cup; none of those six had played 50 matches before the campaign kicked off against South Africa at Southampton on 5 June.
Go back to what Dhoni had said a year ahead of the 2015 edition, when asked if he was considering giving up captaincy in one format to prolong his career: “It won’t give a new guy the ideal time to play at least 70-80-90 games [before] the World Cup. That’s what we would like to have him play before the World Cup.”
It’s a tune that did play out as far as the Indian ODI captaincy was concerned. Dhoni’s decision to step down at the start of 2017 provided Virat Kohli with a good 30 months at the helm coming into England, a period that also included another major tournament in the same country.
But were India able to allow a similar weight of experience to what was a sizeable-enough proportion of their squad? No.
Under no foreseeable scenario should a side gunning for world glory be entering a marquee event with nearly 50 percent of the squad not having played even 50 games – and in West Indies, India can look to provide miles (not just the frequent flyer ones) to a crop that they reckon could last them until 2023.
Lesson 2: The ‘next Dhoni’ can wait; let’s build a middle-order first
Whatever the final note to the Dhoni timeline, and whenever it does come, India know all-too-well that you’re better of chancing at a ‘first somebody’ than a ‘next anybody’ – in any case, prescribing a ‘successor’ tag to someone replacing a man who has played 350 ODIs and scored nearly 11000 runs at an average above 50, while also leading the country to its greatest successes, and completing 400-plus dismissals behind the stumps, would be a foolhardy way of going about things.
India will miss Dhoni, regardless of what click-bait opinion might try professing today, but in Pant, at least they have already identified someone worthy enough to step into the heavy shoes.
What they need much more desperately – having ultimately struggled to find one despite umpteen combinations and the biggest nationwide hunt of the decade (remember Kaun Banega No 4, anyone?) – is a settled middle-order, with an array of back-ups ready to step in.
Rahul, Pant, and Vijay Shankar were the ones who huffed-and-puffed at the much-vaunted position in the Indian batting order during the World Cup, and not one of them has called the number four slot their own with any regularity even in domestic cricket, leave alone at the international level.
Ambati Rayudu has already called time on his cricket journey, and Ajinkya Rahane’s time at the spot, one would imagine, was long past him, but are India short on contenders to draft into the setup and give a long rope? Ask Manish Pandey, or Shreyas Iyer, or even Shubman Gill, and the answer will be a firm no.
Lesson 3: Invest in all-rounders, and ensure they stay all around the setup
In the end, it was the “bits-and-pieces” of Ravindra Jadeja that picked up the bits of the Indian batting lying fallen at Old Trafford and pieced it together, very nearly, into a Manchester miracle – and batting was only his third suit.
India’s original ‘first-choice’ XI for the 2019 World Cup only featured one out-and-out all-rounder in Pandya (you could put Shankar in the same bracket, but he’s averaged less than three overs a game after 12 ODIs so far).
Look around the same World Cup, and the only two teams to better India – England and New Zealand – had at least two all-rounders in their lineup at all times (Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes featured in each of England’s 11 outings; James Neesham, Colin de Grandhomme and Mitchell Santner made the XI for all New Zealand games).
ODI cricket has reached a place where it seems inconceivable that a team can go into a contest with ‘only’ five bowling options and a tail that begins at numbers eight. Both, sadly, held true for the highest majority of India’s matches in England.
So Krunal Pandya? Washington Sundar? Axar Patel? Keep your phones ready this Friday, if the BCCI selection committee is thinking even remotely along the lines of what this author is.
Lesson 4: Which way do you want to spin it?
One of the major changes India made to their outlook to 50-over cricket in the run-in to the 2019 World Cup, in keeping with the trends of the global game, was a shift in favour of wrist-spin.
The post-mortem into the 2017 Champions Trophy marked the ouster of the much-trusted finger-spin: out went R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and in came Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.
The two ‘wristies’ weaved a web of their own across the world through a rampant 2018, but weren’t as effective when it came down to the real action in England. Not that they were to blame individually, truth be told; perhaps opposition camps had done enough data-mining, or perhaps, more realistically, this just wasn’t a World Cup for spin (spinners averaged 50.97, compared to 30.16 for pacers).
What was perhaps a little more telling about India’s own confusion over composition was the fact that Jadeja made a bit of an 11th-hour return to the fold in the last six months ahead of the World Cup.
By the end of it, with Yadav warming the benches for the semi-final against New Zealand – despite having rocked the Kiwis with two four-fors in five matches in New Zealand earlier this year – as India shifted away from their tried-and-tested formula of the last two years when it came to the crunch game.
Will there be greater clarity the next time around? It will be a World Cup in India, so unless the sun starts rising from the West, spinners will have a much better time.
Either which way, if India feel confused about any of the three spinners who were on the touring party in England, the time for trials ought to begin now for the likes of Krunal Pandya, Shreyas Gopal, Rahul Chahar and co.
Lesson 5: Find – and groom – Bumrah’s potential partners
At a time when India’s pace-bowling stock in the longest format of the game is at its all-time high, and earned comparisons with the greatest pace units of history, it would seem far-fetched to suggest that fast-bowling is an area of concern.
But two of the three out-and-out quicks in the Indian World Cup roster – Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami – will be on the other side of 32 come India 2023, and that isn’t exactly a high-return zone for the fast men.
Jasprit Bumrah, sure, wrap him in cotton wool for the rest of his life; but who could be partnering him for the longer-term future of Indian ODI cricket?
The likes of Khaleel Ahmed, Deepak Chahar and Mohammed Siraj have all showed up in limited-overs colours over the past year, while Navdeep Saini kept the batsmen in the World Cup squad on their toes in the nets through the English summer.
Naming that quartet is barely scratching at the surface – in the first half or so of this fresh four-year cycle, India have to be looking at giving the boys enough of a look-in to begin to challenge the men holding the fort at the moment.
A Potential ‘Future’ XV for India to Sample in WI
KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, Rishabh Pant, Vijay Shankar, Krunal Pandya, Shreyas Gopal, Rahul Chahar, Navdeep Saini, Khaleel Ahmed, Deepak Chahar, Avesh Khan