Leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, already under pressure after being left out of India’s 2021 T20 World Cup squad, went for 16 runs in his second over, conceding two boundaries and a soaring six by New Zealand’s hitman, Martin Guptill. Other captains may have taken Chahal off after that over. But not India’s new T20 captain, Rohit Sharma.
In Chahal’s next over, Guptill went for him again, but this time skied a catch. That ended Kiwi hopes of chasing the victory target of 185 in Kolkata on Sunday, making it a 3-0 sweep for India in the T20 series. Rohit Sharma, known as Hitman for his aggressive batting, showed that he’s also an aggressive captain - in tactics, not histrionics.
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He had seen Chahal drifting to the legside, but knew the diminutive leggie could get Guptill if he steadied his nerve to correct his line. The captain stuck to his wicket-taking option and backed his wrist-spinner, instead of switching to a more defensive bowler after the 16-run 9th over.
The wicket-taking mindset was evident from the very start of the Kiwi innings at the Eden Gardens on a winter night with heavy dew. Sharma decided to give his spinners the best chance to grip the ball and extract some turn on a tacky wicket before the ball got damp.
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Left-arm spinner Axar Patel came on to bowl in the third over of the powerplay, with only two fielders allowed outside the 30-yard circle. It was a risky move on a ground with moderate dimensions where the openers had got off to a flying start. But it paid off as Patel got two wickets in that over, and a third one in his next over.
Contrast that with New Zealand’s equally good left-arm spinner, Mitchell Santner, who also got two wickets in his first over, but only after the Indian openers had plundered 69 runs from six overs of pace. Santner himself was the Kiwi captain for this match, but didn’t have the gumption to challenge his opposite number, Rohit Sharma, with spin in the powerplay.
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The old cliche goes that a captain is only as good as his players, but often it’s the other way round. The way Chahal bowled, with the captain himself standing at first slip to back his wicket-taking ability, had a lot to do with how he was handled. Leg-spinners in particular need a good captain because they’re double-edged swords - they can snaffle wickets with their variations but they can also dish out lollipops by erring in line and length, because wrist-spin is harder to control than finger-spin.
It’s no fluke that Rohit Sharma has won an astounding five titles in nine seasons of the Indian Premier League (IPL) since taking over the captaincy of Mumbai Indians (MI) in 2013, when the former Australian skipper Ricky Ponting stood down in his favour. MI is a richly endowed franchise, but it had not won a single title in five previous seasons.
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The second most successful IPL captain is the redoubtable MS Dhoni, who won four titles for Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in 12 seasons. That even the great Dhoni lost five times in IPL finals shows how unforgiving is the T20 format which gives little time to recover from tactical errors, unlike five-day Tests.
Rohit Sharma is often described as a bowler’s captain. What it means is that he gives his bowlers the space to take the initiative, instead of just following the captain’s script without applying their own minds. At the same time, he’s constantly passing on strategic inputs.
Sometimes it backfires. For example, Bhuvneshwar Kumar asked for a second slip to be shifted to a defensive position, and the very next ball a catch went through the vacant second slip in one of the games. But overall it works better when players relish taking responsibility for fulfilling their roles in the team, and feel free to make suggestions or even disagree. It helps that Sharma is one of the boys, with no airs about him, because superstardom somehow eluded him despite his enormous batting talent.
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It’s a fortuitous coincidence that the new coach, Rahul Dravid, is equally unassuming, despite arguably being the best Indian batsman of his era for pressure situations in the SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Australia). The Dravid-Sharma combination gives India a good chance to end the drought in World Cup titles since 2011.
So even though the home series triumph over New Zealand may have been a scant palliative for fans, after India’s early exit from the 2021 T20 World Cup, it gives the new Indian team leadership the heft to prepare for the next T20 World Cup to be played in Australia next year. And if that goes well, Sharma could also lead India in the ODI World Cup at home in 2023, depending on his form and fitness.
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The absence of three of India’s regulars - Virat Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah, and Ravindra Jadeja - gave the team management a chance to test the reserve pool of talent. And this time the selectors gave due weightage to IPL performances, instead of theories like Rahul Chahar being a more suitable leg-spinner for the World Cup because he bowls faster than Chahal. The omission of Hardik Pandya, who does not appear to have been rested, was also a tacit admission that they had erred in picking a player for the World Cup who had not proven his form and fitness in the IPL.
Not all boxes were ticked in the short New Zealand series. Suryakumar Yadav had one good knock but fell victim to his old predilection for showboating, which almost cost India the first game. Ishan Kishan got a good start in the final game but failed to carry on. Rishabh Pant continues to let himself down in T20s for India by hitting across the line. Shreyas Iyer is yet to prove himself in the middle order, and Venkatesh Iyer will need more time to adjust to his new role of finisher. These shortcomings got covered up by the resounding success of Sharma as opener, averaging 53 at a strike rate of 154. Clearly, captaincy won’t take a toll on his batting.
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The bowlers were the most impressive. Ravichandran Ashwin continues his tale of revival in white ball cricket, while Axar Patel made a case for including him in the T20 team alongside fellow left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja. Medium-pacer Harshal Patel showed that his IPL success was no flash in the pan. Bhuvneshwar Kumar gave glimpses of his old prowess at swinging the ball both ways with the same action. Deepak Chahar and Mohammad Siraj had expensive opening spells but came back well in the death overs. Captain Rohit Sharma even opted to bat first after winning the toss in the final game to test his bowlers in dewy conditions.
Kumar remains a question mark for the conditions in Australia next year unless he amps up his pace to cross 135 kmph, as Harshal Patel does to make his slower ball harder to collar. It’s a pity the tall Delhi bowler, Avesh Khan, could not be tried out too. But Dravid and Sharma have the right idea: it’s better to give a few players enough opportunity to prove themselves, instead of a revolving door that doesn’t let anyone settle. India’s T20 cricket is in good hands.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.
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