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Indian cricket has a problem, but it is a good one

As India prepares for the T20 World Cup in October, captain Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid are facing a strange new problem

Ravindra Jadeja, Rishabh Pant, Ravi Bishnoi and Rohit Sharma during the first T20 match against West Indies.
Ravindra Jadeja, Rishabh Pant, Ravi Bishnoi and Rohit Sharma during the first T20 match against West Indies. (AFP)

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India have won 16 out of the 20 T20 international matches they’ve played since November 2021. This comes after an early exit from last year’s T20 World Cup due to back-to-back losses to Pakistan and New Zealand in Dubai. Rohit Sharma took over the captaincy from Virat Kohli after the World Cup and led the team in series whitewashes at home against New Zealand, the West Indies and Sri Lanka. A 2-2 drawn series against South Africa followed under Rishabh Pant’s captaincy. Then the juggernaut was back on a roll with series wins in Ireland and England, before being tied 1-1 in the ongoing five-match series in the West Indies.

It’s a similar story in one-day internationals (ODIs), although the year began with a 0-3 drubbing in South Africa under KL Rahul. India then won eight out of nine ODIs including a series win in England and a whitewash in the West Indies.

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What’s remarkable is that through this run, India have experimented liberally with personnel and positions, leaders and tactics. As many as seven regulars, including the skipper, keeper, and lead bowlers were rested for the ODI series in the West Indies. But that didn’t stop the Shikhar Dhawan-led side from coming out on top quite easily. 

Fresh from the Indian Premier League (IPL), India’s bench strength is humming. Sharma, and coach Rahul Dravid had warned fans that there could be failures, because they were committed to give adequate opportunities to as many players as possible ahead of the T20 World Cup in October. But contrary to fears, the team’s success rate has firmed up, instead of wobbling. Almost every player thrown into the mix, in every position, has come out with flying colours.

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The sole exception has been Virat Kohli, who has sunk deeper into his out-of-form quicksand, instead of coming out of his so-called three-year “lean patch”. Until 2019, one could not imagine that his place in the side could ever be questioned. But now, unless there’s a dramatic turnaround in Kohli’s form over the next couple of months, he’s clearly a weak link in a very strong Indian side. With so many worthy contenders for his No.3 slot, only Kohli’s star value, and memories of past exploits will save his position.

Positive Intent

Leaving aside the Kohli conundrum, the Sharma-Dravid combine has had plenty of positive takeaways from their experiments. The most important aspect of the experimentation has been to condition players into a more positive, attacking mindset, without worrying about their places in the side. And everyone has responded so magnificently that it appears the team leadership has earned the trust of all the players, whether they’re in the core group or at the periphery of the team.

Sharma has set the tone with the bat, coming out all guns blazing as an opener each time he has returned to the team after injury or covid breaks. He has had multiple partners at the other end, and none of them have flinched from what’s asked of them, even if they’ve played too risky a shot and squandered their wicket from time to time. And the same approach has extended down the batting order. 

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Some have looked more ungainly than others. Some have chosen to get set before lashing out. But overall the run rate has been rollicking along. There’s more of a premium on strike rates and team requirements than looking pretty or self-preservation. 

It will be interesting to see how Rahul fits into this mix after he returns from a long injury layoff. His shot-making is par excellence, but he has chosen to play too conservatively of late, giving more importance to keeping his wicket intact. This has let down the IPL sides he has led. All the others have bought into the “Pant-ball” mode, even if hitting out intelligently, and with control, in a consistent manner, is still a work in progress. The team think-tank will be hoping that each batsman will have figured out the perfect balance by the time the World Cup comes around.

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Oddly enough, an overabundance of success has created a new challenge for the team management. Instead of being able to decide who are the most worthy candidates for the World Cup playing eleven, they’re looking at multiple, equally capable, contenders for each position. Many might have feared that this problem of plenty would create confusion, but generally speaking, team captains and coaches have become used to making the most of a flexible team, thanks again to the IPL. Considering the vicissitudes of covid-19 and injury in modern cricket, this abundance of choice will be an asset than a liability.

Bowling Depth

The think tank hardly have any time to decide, as the Zimbabwe series and the Asia Cup follow the tour of the West Indies. Then, in late September and early October, are two home series against Australia and South Africa. Unfortunately, none of these games are being played in conditions similar to what can be expected in Australia for the World Cup. However, the bounce on the Dubai wicket for the Asia Cup may help weed out those who’re vulnerable to bodyline tactics, notably Shreyas Iyer and Ishan Kishan.

The team management has shown a willingness to think outside the box. So we need not expect the starting XI to feature the usual suspects. The candidates to partner Sharma at the top, or to replace an injured opener are Rahul, if he makes it back for the Asia Cup, Shubman Gill, Kishan, and Ruturaj Gaikwad. But with Pant and Suryakumar Yadav also being tried out at the top, the slot is clearly up for grab.

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The No. 3 slot is where it gets really tricky. Deepak Hooda and Sanju Samson join Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav as strong contenders for either Kohli’s position or lower down at No.5, assuming Pant is going to bat at No.4. Hardik Pandya’s resurgence and Shardul Thakur’s rediscovery of his “golden arm” give India good options for the medium-pace bowling all-rounder slot. And the revelation of left-arm spinner Axar Patel’s hard-hitting match-winning prowess adds to the all-round abilities of stalwarts Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin.

There’s no dearth of choice of specialist bowlers either. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s revival of swing, Harshal Patel’s dibbly-dobblies, Thakur’s liquorice allsorts, and Arshdeep Singh’s yorkers provide the variation of pace and length that keeps T20 hitters off balance. In Prasidh Krishna and Avesh Khan, India have a couple of tall blokes who can hit the Aussie decks hard. All this, even though the selectors missed out on trying the left-armer Mohsin Khan who had such an impressive IPL this year for the Lucknow Super Giants.

The new-found oomph of Yuzvendra Chahal, the growing confidence of Kuldeep Yadav, and the awkward action of googly specialist Ravi Bishnoi provide a variety of wrist spin. Missing in action are the two spinners Indian selectors took to last year’s World Cup, Rahul Chahar and Varun Chakravarthy. But, given the extended preparatory run for this World Cup, the chances are that such selection blunders will not be made this time.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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