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T20 World Cup: Just what the doctor ordered

Sometimes, it is good to suffer a defeat, as India did against South Africa, in order to get tactics right and win tournaments

India should give the fantastic Arshdeep Singh a greater role.
India should give the fantastic Arshdeep Singh a greater role. (ANI )

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None of India’s previous World Cup triumphs in 1983, 2007, and 2011 came without a loss along the way. So, in historical context, the loss against South Africa at Perth in the ongoing T20 World Cup is just what the doctor ordered.

India began the 1983 campaign with a bang, beating defending champions West Indies at Old Trafford. Then they suffered big losses against Australia and the West Indies, as well as a big scare against Zimbabwe. But they squeaked though, and made history.

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At the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, India began shakily with a washout against Scotland and a tie against Pakistan. They only managed to win the latter with a bowl-out. Then they lost to New Zealand in the Super 8 but won everything thereafter to lift the trophy, beating arch rivals Pakistan in the final. And in the 2011 ODI World Cup at home, India tied a match with England in Bengaluru and lost a humdinger against South Africa in Nagpur, before they could find their path to MS Dhoni’s famous winning six in the final.

A loss in time can provide just the stimulus needed for a course correction to go all the way in the knockout stage later. Wins, on the other hand, can paper over the cracks in a team, leading to complacency. Seen in that light, India can gain valuable lessons from their loss to South Africa on a fast, bouncy track in Perth.

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Both India and Pakistan had erred by fielding two spinners on the pace-friendly Melbourne wicket. Then, on an even pacier and bouncier track in Perth, both India and South Africa made the mistake of including a spinner who would be the obvious target. After all, the Perth wicket is well known for batsmen struggling against fast bowlers. 

India’s plight might have been worse if South Africa had called up their tall left-arm quick, Marco Jansen, from the reserves in place of the injured all-rounder, Dwaine Pretorius. Instead they continued with left-arm spinner, Keshav Maharaj. The 28 runs India scored in Maharaj’s three overs after being five down was a relief.

Similarly, South Africa were able to counterattack from 40 for 3 in 10 overs by targeting off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, who conceded 43 runs in 4 overs in a low-scoring game. Although India’s World Cup squad does not have a fifth bowler with enough pace for a Perth pitch, medium pacer Harshal Patel might have been harder to hit out of the park than a spinner. It would, of course, have been even better if Mohammed Siraj had been in the squad instead of Patel. Siraj’s pace would have been a handful on the Perth wicket, and his experience of bowling in Australia last year would have been handy.

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So India need to pick the right bowling attack for individual matches. But the batting, too, was a shambles, and only the amazing form of Suryakumar Yadav prevented a rout. Yadav’s strike rate of 170 was neutralized, however, by a struggling Dinesh Karthik at the other end, who made only 6 in 15 balls. 

It allowed South Africa to get away with conceding 33 from their 4 overs of spin from Maharaj and Markram, compared to 43 they collected from Ashwin. That made all the difference in the end.

It’s hard to understand why India refuses to use the experience of Rishabh Pant. He had scored a Test century on his very first tour Down Under, then followed it up with series-defining knocks last year in Sydney and Brisbane. Karthik got into the team with some cameos in the IPL, but appears all at sea on the bouncy wickets in Australia. His ‘finisher’ role is overblown in conditions where you need stronger batting skills. Whether Karthik carries on and ends up producing match-winning cameos or India course-correct by bringing in Pant to strengthen the batting remains to be seen.

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The other main title contenders too have issues to resolve and tough calls to make midway through the tournament. South Africa skipper Temba Bavuma’s woeful form at the top of the order is a big impediment for the Proteas. To fulfill their dream of winning their first World Cup, the team management has to bite the bullet and replace the skipper with the in-form Reeza Hendricks. He was the player of the series in South Africa’s win over England before the World Cup, but now finds no place in the playing 11.

The conditions in Australia suit South Africa, who play on even faster and bouncier pitches back home. The likes of IPL hero David Miller and newcomers Rilee Rossouw and Tristan Stubbs, along with the experienced Quinton de Kock and Aiden Markram, give their batting both solidity and pizzazz. Their four-pronged pace attack appears formidable on these tracks. It would be a shame if they were to let this World Cup too slip through their fingers, as they have done ever since their first World Cup appearance in Australia in 1992. 

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Hosts, and defending champions, Australia have an identical problem to solve at the top of the order. Aaron Finch has lost his mojo as an opener, which was painfully evident in this year’s IPL, but retains his spot by dint of being Australia’s T20 skipper. Waiting in the wings is the tall all-rounder, Cameron Green, who showed his prowess in the T20 series in India just before the World Cup. He smashed a match-winning 61 in 30 balls at Mohali, got run out early in the second game, and then scored another stunning 52 in 21 balls as an opener in the last game in Hyderabad. 

Australia have the advantage of playing in home conditions with an experienced, world class bowling lineup. But their batting has been wobbly and the induction of Green could give them the starts they have been lacking in the powerplays. It requires a tough call of either benching Finch or moving him down the order. 

The 89-run drubbing by New Zealand in their opening game should have been a wake-up call, but Australia had strong wins subsequently against lesser teams, and their match against England in Melbourne got washed out. So the problem at the top remains unresolved.

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We are now at the business end of the tournament, where the ones who make the right choices will go through to win the title. India remain well placed despite the loss to South Africa, unless their games against Bangladesh in Adelaide on Wednesday and Zimbabwe in Melbourne on Sunday get washed out. Rain has played spoilsport in this World Cup with strong teams dropping crucial points against weaker sides. If the rain in Adelaide goes away, it will be interesting to see India’s playing XI. Even against Pakistan, they were on the verge of losing with 28 runs to get in the final 8 balls. 

Vice-captain KL Rahul has looked tentative at the top and needs to put the demons out of his head to go for his wide repertoire of shots freely. Inducting a left-hander in the middle order with a track record of scoring big in Australia will be a booster. And the sensational Arshdeep Singh should be the one getting three overs on the trot with the new ball, rather than Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who was economical but wicketless against South Africa on a helpful pitch.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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