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Why India's star cricketers need to prioritise the team to win the World Cup

If India is to win the World Cup for a third time, cricketers have to prioritise the team over personal glory.

K.L. Rahul in action against Australia at the World Cup.
K.L. Rahul in action against Australia at the World Cup. (ANI)

After hitting the winning shot against Australia in Chennai on Sunday, India’s K.L. Rahul sat on his haunches looking crestfallen. His bizarre reaction was because he was aiming to hit a four. Instead, the shot went for a six, ending the game as India only needed five for victory at that stage. Rahul was on 91 and his plan was to hit a four and then attempt a six from one of the subsequent balls. That would have got him a century instead of finishing on 97 not out.

Rahul’s 165-run fourth wicket partnership with Virat Kohli—played under intense pressure after the top three batsmen fell for two runs—followed by a quickfire 34-run partnership with Hardik Pandya, secured victory for India with 52 balls to spare. While Kohli rode his luck, playing and missing outside off-stump on numerous occasions and skying a catch that was not taken, Rahul’s knock was chanceless and without blemish—until that peculiar reaction at the end. 

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His early attack against Australia’s main spin threat, Adam Zampa, took the game away from the Aussies. That he is batting so well, and also wicket-keeping with aplomb, after a long layoff due to a serious injury in the IPL earlier this year, speaks volumes about Rahul’s character, commitment, and class. It would be a travesty if a selfish streak mars that quality.

It’s understandable that Indian stars, perhaps more than cricketers from other nations, have incentives to notch up personal milestones, because of all the advertising endorsements they get. But these can be India’s Achilles’ Heel if they shift focus even slightly from the team’s requirements in any given situation. Rahul even spoke without any guilt in a post-match interview, about going for the milestone. “I hit it too well. I wanted to get a hundred by going four and six.” 

The question is whether a player should put an individual achievement above the team’s goal at any stage. The ICC World Cup is being played in a round robin league format to decide the semi-finalists. With at least six strong contenders for the four berths, it could well be decided on fine margins in net run rate. 

In such a scenario, when victory was assured, Rahul’s only thought should have been to finish the match fast and boost India’s net run rate. He did that by hitting a six, but it was by accident and not intent! At the top of his mind in that moment was how to reach a century, and not the team’s winning score. That isn’t acceptable in a team game.

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It put a self-centred finishing note on what was otherwise a fantastic display to resurrect India. Now imagine an Australian batsman in that scenario. Would he be aiming to finish the match with a six in one ball or planning a four followed by a six to reach a milestone?

Australia have won five ODI World Cups and India have won only two despite having a greater talent pool. India have not won a T20 or ODI World Cup since M.S. Dhoni’s team triumphed in 2011. In the past 24 years, Australia have won it four times. 

This time, with the World Cup again being played at home, India have a great opportunity. The team is bristling with talent, so much so that the only thing that can go wrong is selection of a suboptimal playing 11. That, and an obsession with personal hits.

To be fair, the current generation of Indian cricketers generally play according to game situation and team requirement, and make personal goals secondary. Dhoni set the culture of putting the team first, and Kohli was cut from the same cloth. 

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But from time to time, the old mania for personal glory rises and it’s best to nip it in the bud. Coach Rahul Dravid, who rarely played selfishly, and skipper Rohit Sharma, who exemplifies a team-first attitude, would do well to address this in a team meeting. The team needs to be razor-focused on winning the World Cup for millions of their ardent fans, setting aside individual landmarks, even if the media tend to play up the latter.

Thanks to the bowlers and the Rahul-Kohli partnership, India have got off to a rousing start in their World Cup campaign. They were also lucky to lose the toss. It’s unlikely any captain will choose to bat first in Chennai, going forward, after seeing what happened to Australia as they struggled to 199. Batting got easier under lights, with dew covering the ground towards the end.

The conditions will be similar for India’s next big game, which will be against arch rivals Pakistan in Ahmedabad on Saturday. During the opening game in Ahmedabad on 5 October, Tom Latham, New Zealand’s stand-in skipper in place of the injured Kane Williamson, opted to bowl first on winning the toss, much to the surprise of commentators on the ground. However, that turned out to be a winning move against defending champions England. It should now be quite clear what to do on winning the toss in a day-nighter in Ahmedabad, like in Chennai.

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The big blow for India is dengue bringing down opener Shubman Gill, the leading run-scorer in ODIs this year. It’s a tough gig for Ishan Kishan to replace him after being reconditioned to a middle order role for the World Cup. 

The other wrinkle in India’s batting is Shreyas Iyer coming out ahead of the in-form Rahul at the vital No. 4 position. It may be better to put Rahul back where he belongs and let Suryakumar Yadav come lower down as a finisher—a role for which he’s better suited than Iyer. Most of all, Team India needs to consistently put the team first.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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