The delusion of dominance: Why India still need to fix their T20 muddle
That India pulled off a dramatic win at Thiruvananthapuram in an eight-over shootout does not paper over the tiny cracks that seem to have enveloped their T20 combination lately. Their defeat in Rajkot to the flightful Kiwis, well served by Colin Munro's rapier-like blade and his bombing innings, the teasing and beguiling skills of Ish Sodhi and Mitchell Santner, further fuelled the underlying tremors.
Ironic as it may seem, their sole successful campaign in the ICC World T20 was orchestrated in September 2007 before the IPL was born as a product. It puts into perspective (at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious), that the consistent standards displayed by the international sides against India, in this helter-skelter format, where thinking on one's feet is a prerequisite, are far superior to the quality drummed up at the IPL.
One would have thought that with the staggering number of games that a majority of the Indian players have encountered in the IPL, they would have attuned and innured themselves to compete at a more skilful level at the world stage than they have otherwise managed in this last decade.
That said, I feel they could have altered and tinkered a tad with the opening combo of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma after their persistent average showings over time. Shikhar, despite having had the odd match or two of resplendent brilliance, has not quite replicated his success of the ODI format, or even for that matter, his Test match returns, on his comeback in Sri Lanka, in relation to his T20 trysts. Perplexing, given his propensity as a naturally attacking leftie at the top! The time has come for KL Rahul, lately a bit flat in ODIs, to have a "shoe in" to this frenetic format, given he is one of India's trio to have peeled a ton, in the T20 format in the Caribbean in 2016.
Sharma's sparse returns at the top in this format in relation to his impeccable ODI record have further exacerbated the issue as pressure mounts on the in-form Virat Kohli, seemingly beyond human fallibility as of now.
That he strains unnaturally to correct a wobbly start, and given a shaky middle order compounds the mire, the rot sets in at his demise, even as mingled panic and confusion looms large.
The absence of an unfit and listless Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh in the line-up seems a telling factor, as suitable replacements are yet to be nourished and groomed despite sizzling talents emerging.
Acres of newsprint and gigabytes have been used up by ex-stars about MS Dhoni's use in the side in a format that is increasingly built for the younger lads with improvised skills. At 36, Dhoni, unless he gets to bat at no.4. is a liability, with his visibly waning resources to get the ball off the square, despite fast legs, palpably visible. His lately-acquired proclivity to start slow and not up the ante early enough may well push him to an anonymous and hitherto unseen mediocrity.
That will be sad. That it does not help the big picture was veritably seen in Rajkot and in a few other games earlier, where the unbearable pressure to keep pace with an imposing run chase or set a stiff target stares the team in the face. The result is that a set batsman looks to better his best unnaturally and gets sacrificed at the altar of heightened anxiety.
Another opportunity was lost by Team India in not utilising the versatility and form of Dinesh Karthik ahead of Shreyas Iyer. Iyer might have earned his stripes by storming the door ajar with run-hungry digs, but I feel Karthik's experience and current form deserved a look in in this format. Hardik Pandya, despite oodles of talent and a successful series versus the Aussies in the ODI format, has to shore up his ability to deal with spin and turn off the hand by not being one dimensional.
He would be better served hitting straight with a vertical blade, more so against a turning ball. He must fortify his horizontal shots off short pacey balls, to be even talked about in the breath of a young Kapil Dev. Should he acquire greater focus and the desire to succeed constantly, India might have found and developed a lovely, all-weather, consistent all-rounder to enable the team to tinker and play more bowlers in this condensed format.
The heartening feature amidst all these tiny irritable slip-ups, to even a carping critic of Team India, is the enhanced maturity and ice-in-the-veins approach of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah. If one of them assaults, the other penetrates. Bowlers get better by bowling more and acquire miles in the legs with regular run-ins. That both of them have faced the heat often enough in the cauldron of very many IPL encounters have enabled them in good stead.
Their clever change of pace and cunning yorkers whilst operating in the powerplay and during the death beggars belief. Bhuvneshwar has cranked up his pace and with guile and an uncompromising ability to procure banana swing, accounts for a lot of wickets and Bumrah, with his unorthodox action and an ability to spear toe-crushing yorkers from an awkward angle, complements him well.
With the neighbours Sri Lanka visiting India soon, Team India's instant challenge is to switch to Test mode, with a change in their personnel, in which a certain R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, among others would be itching to make it count after they were given a "rest" from limited-overs cricket. The time is also perhaps ripe for the team management to help Kohli to indulge in a small refreshing breather ahead of a crammed 2018 and beyond calendar.
A successful culmination of 2017 by Christmas Eve would hopefully help Team India to usher in a bright 2018 and enable them to hit the ground running in successive overseas tours of the Proteas and the Old Blighty in the summer, not to mention combat their bete noir Australia in late 2018, where the side's might and rankings across all formats over the past couple of seasons would be sorely tested to its parsimonious bone marrow!