India’s sudden Twenty20 surge
Four months ago, India suffered the ignominy of three successive Twenty20 international (T20I) losses, one of them against Zimbabwe, the other two at home against South Africa. While three matches are a small sample size, the manner of defeats allegorized stagnating stratagems, in a format demanding quite the opposite. It was like sword fighting in a nuclear age.
The line-up constituted all the One-Day international (ODI) regulars, with the odd exception. India, it appeared, had been lulled into believing that an ODI blue print could somehow succeed in the shortest form of the game. It was akin to fetching firewood for one’s own funeral pyre.
During the series against South Africa, India’s physiognomy appeared one-dimensional, in the absence of a talisman. In both matches, the batting was either stuck in first gear or the advantage of early momentum was squandered at the fag-end of the innings.
At Dharamsala, India posted a seemingly competitive 199 but had they not slackened towards the end, a more daunting target was on the cards. The last 27 balls fetched just 39 runs, which proved decisive in the end. At Cuttack, the innings never took off. India limped to a paltry 92, losing wickets with amazing regularity.
But just as quickly as a T20 game turns on its head, India’s fortunes swung favourably in a matter of one domestic tournament – Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and three T20Is against Australia. The beneficiaries from the domestic T20 tournament have rendered India a more balanced unit.
Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have been remarkably consistent at the top. They will be buoyed by the return of an in-form Yuvraj Singh, which should at least theoretically solve the predicament of finishing off innings’; India’s Achilles Heel in recent times. Hardik Pandya’s lurid intrepidity infuses a similar confidence.
Since the incalculable is an invaluable trait to possess in T20s, in Yuvraj, Pandya and Suresh Raina, India boasts a dynamic middle order, which can be shuffled as per match situations. This flexibility was conspicuously missing during the series against South Africa. The problem continued to plague India during the ODIs against Australia as well.
The new found power and unpredictability in the middle order, will allow MS Dhoni to operate in his elements: throw proceedings off the hook and remain ahead of the eight ball,in a frenetic T20 environment. It was this distinct ability to pull a pigeon out of the hat, that stood Dhoni out in the past, most memorably in the final of the inaugural World T20 in South Africa.
The belated return of Ashish Nehra is also worth rejoicing. His prolonged ouster despite favourable numbers, remains an unresolved mystery, much like the Bermuda Triangle. Back in the scheme of things, however, the 36-year old warhorse brings to the fore control, a prerequisite for being labelled “leader of the pack.”
For donkey’s years, India have been groping in the dark for a bowling commander, especially in shorter formats. Nehra on his return reinstated the value of experience, which even in what is widely regarded as a young man’s game, cannot be bought on the shelf.
Throw in the wily off-spin of Ravichandran Ashwin, the nagging accuracy of Ravindra Jadeja and the spooky air of mystery surrounding Jasprit Bumrah, and India suddenly have the countenance of a successful T20 bowling attack. Bumrah's penchant for finding the block hole in death overs is nearly as encouraging as BCCI’s latest stand on conflict of interest issues.
There is no shortage of contingency plans either, should one of them struggle. Yuvraj, Pandya and Raina are all reliable bowling options, especially at home. As it turned out, the four canny overs from Pandya and Yuvraj were instrumental in securing the series in Melbourne. The procession of wickets in the middle pegged Australia back and catapulted the required run-rate beyond their reach.
That, their styles are uniquely different is a perk, worth its weight in gold. Dhoni, who has always valued players with dual skill-sets, is suddenly and serendipitously spoilt for choice, ahead of a big tournament. Thus, with pieces of the jigsaw falling harmoniously in place, coupled with the advantage of home conditions, India are not only in a better place than they were four months ago, but are emerging as strong contenders for the coveted World T20 title.