It’s true that Pakistan had the luck of the toss and better conditions. The dew in Dubai does give the team batting second in evening games too much of an advantage. But that’s not the only reason Pakistan beat India with 13 balls to spare in the much-anticipated 2021 T20 World Cup game on 24 October.
Even before the tournament began, the Indian selectors and team management had grossly misread the ground conditions in the UAE—and especially Dubai where India are playing most of their matches—to pick a lopsided team with five spinners and only three pacers. They did balance it at the last minute by replacing a spinner with a medium pacer, but it’s still a suboptimal selection for these conditions.
We had ample evidence during the Indian Premier League (IPL) leg in the UAE right before the World Cup that tall pace bowlers hitting the deck with the new ball at over 140kmph could extract bounce and seam movement to take early wickets in Dubai. Josh Hazlewood played a vital role in helping Chennai Super Kings (CSK) win the IPL title, as did Anrich Nortje and Avesh Khan in taking Delhi Capitals (DC) to the top of the league table.
These signals were missed by the selectors. The entire Indian pace quartet comprises bowlers of medium height, and two of them are medium pacers. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Shardul Thakur are similar bowlers who rely on swing and variations. Thakur is the player in form, with 21 wickets in this IPL season, including three strikes for CSK in the final. Kumar got only six wickets in the 2021 IPL.
Ideally, in place of Kumar, India should have included a tall pace bowler like young Avesh Khan—one of the top performers in the IPL with 24 wickets and an economy rate of 7.37. Pakistan entrusted a 21-year-old Shaheen Shah Afridi with the first over in a big game and reaped dividends. India missed an opportunity to fight fire with fire.
The team management compounded the mistake by picking Kumar in the playing eleven ahead of Thakur. What’s more, skipper Virat Kohli gave him the responsibility of spearheading India’s attack, with India’s main strike bowler Jasprit Bumrah coming to bowl only in the third over. By then, the possibly nervous Pakistan openers had got their eye in.
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This was in stark contrast to Shaheen Shah Afridi, who began proceedings for Pakistan with 145kmph rockets that took out the Indian openers. Bhuvneshwar was clocking around 125kmph in the powerplay overs with the new ball. Commentators thought he was overdoing slower balls, but this has generally been his pace since returning to action this year following surgery for sports hernia and a long rehabilitation period.
His ability to swing the ball both ways was a threat with the new ball when he was clocking close to 140kmph before his injury. Now he’s one among hundreds of bowlers who swing the ball about at 120-130kmph which any top-level batsman can handle with ease. But it appears the Indian think tank had fond memories of his heyday and high hopes that he could reproduce that form straight away.
The same line of thinking has weakened the Indian batting too. Hardik Pandya gave no evidence of form in this year’s IPL after returning from a long layoff with a back injury. He has been swinging his bat with little effect and did not bowl at all in the IPL. What he does exude is a confident demeanour and that appears to sit well with the team management.
Otherwise it’s hard to explain how Pandya can play as a specialist batsman ahead of Ishan Kishan who struck red-hot form right before the World Cup. Kishan smashed 84 in 32 balls in Mumbai Indians’ last IPL game, and then made 70 in 46 balls against England in a World Cup warm-up game.
He might have carried on the impetus given by Rishabh Pant even after India lost three early wickets. All-rounder Ravindra Jadeja was promoted in the batting order ahead of Pandya to do this, but he doesn’t have the credentials of Kishan as a T20 batsman yet.
Virat Kohli did get a fifty, but his inability to lift his scoring rate in the middle overs in recent times, continuing a pattern seen in the IPL, meant India ended up with a below-par score. Another 20 runs in the Indian total could have put scoreboard pressure on Pakistan. That would not have allowed the openers Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan to astutely go along at a risk-free seven runs an over during the first 10 overs, waiting for dew to make it easier to score in the second half of the innings. The Pakistan batting looks dodgy beyond the top three, with two veterans Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez in the middle order. So a couple of wickets in the powerplay, with more penetrative bowling and a score that forced risk-taking, might have made a difference to the outcome.
India will no doubt now make changes to the team for the must-win game against New Zealand on Sunday, 31 October. But it reflects poorly on the team leaders when they repeatedly make wrong calls for the first match before taking corrective action. For example, India played two spinners on a green top in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand at Lord’s in London before doing better with a four-pronged pace attack in the England series that followed immediately. It’s not that Pandya can’t succeed; it’s just that Kishan is more likely to play an innings of substance on current form. The same applies to the choice between Bhuvneshwar and Thakur. India need a winning combination before it’s too late in this tournament.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.