Virat Kohli has been quite the headline-writers’ delight at the T20 World Cup.
“Not brave enough,” he said after a second straight loss, at the hands of New Zealand, as good as brought India’s campaign to a grinding halt even before it had started.
“Relief,” he smiled on Monday night, verbalising his most overwhelming emotion at the end of his stint as the T20I skipper.
It’s been a difficult fortnight for Kohli and his boys, strongly backed to break an eight-year drought in ICC tournaments but failing to progress beyond the first stage. It must have been a particularly chastening reality for the outgoing captain as well as head coach Ravi Shastri, for whom there was no glorious swansong.
If they had the time, India would look back on this run with regret. They had plenty going for them, not least a taste of the World Cup conditions in the immediate run-in to the mega event. Time, however, is a luxury the Indian team can’t afford. Their next international assignment is a week away – they host New Zealand for three T20Is and two Tests, starting in Jaipur on 17 November.
Therein lies one part of the problem – burgeoning workload that is a direct reflection of the team’s popularity, its ability to put backsides on seats, its commercial pull that broadcasters and sponsors are desperate to maximise. Since the tour of Australia last November, where they played three ODIs and as many T20Is before signing off with four Tests, India have been perennially on the go. Within days of returning from Australia, they hosted England for four Tests, five T20Is and three ODIs, after which IPL 2021 came calling.
When the IPL was halted at the halfway stage due to positive COVID-19 cases within the framework of the tournament, most players breathed a sigh of relief at the unexpected respite. The period between May and July was the least stressful in some ways – India had just six days of action (in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand) – though nearly three weeks were lopped off in quarantine and isolation leading up to that one-off Test.
Since reassembling after a three-week vacation at the conclusion of that game, India played four Tests in five weeks in England – the last in Manchester was abandoned after the Indian camp was seized with the possibility of positive tests following junior physio Yogesh Parmar contracting the infection – and then moved on to the UAE for part two of the IPL. Hardly did that end when the T20 World Cup came calling. If that’s not demanding enough, few things can be.
Among those things is bubble fatigue. In these extraordinary times that have now spilled over to 20 months, bio-secure environments have become the norm. Players are captive in five-star prisons with no outlets at the end of stressful days of drama. Those of us who fail to understand what the fuss is all about need only reflect on the six weeks of total lockdown in India last year when stepping out of one’s homes was a no-no. Just to go through everyday life in such circumstances was a chore; to expect professional sportspersons, however well looked after they might be, to deliver match after match in such extenuating circumstances is not realistic.
All that being said, India didn’t help their cause at the World Cup. Their toughest challenges were right at the beginning of the Super 12s, against Pakistan and New Zealand. No matter the debilitating effects of heavy workloads and the uncompromising stresses of bubble life, India had to find ways of lifting themselves up for these two matches, well aware that it would be smoother sailing from then on. Unfortunately, in the format that punishes circumspection more exemplarily than any other, India sacrificed courage for conservatism with disastrous consequences.
It’s astonishing that that should have happened under the watch of Kohli and Shastri, both of whose aggression is not affected. India have been on the forward march in Test cricket for a long time now, but the same can’t be said of their approach to the 20-over bang-bang avatar that has bordered on the old-fashioned. Had they shown even half the intent of the last three games against decidedly weaker opponents, there might have been a different tale to tell yet.
True, the quality of the bowling at Pakistan and New Zealand’s disposal was supreme, but India’s batsmen are no slouches either. Rohit Sharma boasts four T20I centuries, his opening partner KL Rahul has two. They can be breathtaking in attack, correct and orthodox but still packing quite a punch, as they reiterated long after the damage had been done. They didn’t last long enough against Shaheen Shah Afridi to make even a token effort against Pakistan, which can happen, but their propensity to put a heavy price on their wickets against the Kiwis was especially hard to fathom.
In both games, India’s defence of modest targets was lackadaisical, half-hearted. They were waiting for the end of the torture, so to say, their famed never-say-die spirit having been jettisoned in the dugout. This wasn’t the India their fans had come to know and love; just how much they had veered off the straight became evident in their powerhouse displays against Afghanistan, Scotland and Namibia.
India also didn’t do themselves any favour by benching R Ashwin for the two stiffest examinations. Having resurrected his white-ball career after more than four years in limbo, Kohli should have utilised the offie’s experience and exceptional skills right from the off. Ashwin was the least tired, physically, of those who toured England because he was sidelined for all four Tests. In not bringing him into play from the get-go, India missed another trick from which there was no coming back.
As a new leadership group prepares to take charge, the immediate task is straightforward – get the house in order with the next World Cup in Australia, 11 months away, in mind. This trophy-less drought has gone on too long, honestly.
R Kaushik is a Bengaluru-based freelancer who has been writing on cricket for 30 years. He has reported on more than 100 Test matches and is the co-author of VVS Laxman's autobiography, 281 And Beyond.
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