Why India's series of failures in knockout matches is not a coincidence
Back in 2013, when India lifted the Champions Trophy title under the leadership of MS Dhoni, little would anyone have expected that the team was about to run into a drought of ICC tournaments for the next half decade.
The 2014 World T20 final, the 2015 ODI World Cup semi-final, the 2016 T20 World Cup semifinal, the 2017 Champions Trophy final, the 2019 ODI World Cup semifinal - there is something common in all these tournaments. India were the best team in the tournament by a fair margin, before they succumbed to the pressure in an all-important knockout match.
To put it more explicitly, Indian players are consistently failing to raise their game in the make-or-break situations of ICC tournaments.
The Men in Blue have been without an ICC trophy for longer periods in the past. So a period of 5-6 years without a trophy shouldn't theoretically be a cause of worry for Indians fans. However, closer scrutiny reveals that the real cause for concern exists in the repetition of similar mistakes by the Indian team management over the past few years.
Be it the collapse of the middle order in pressure situations or the lack of stable-headed cool individuals to rise to the occasion, the same patterns have been observed in India's failures at multi-nation tournaments.
As India's ICC trophy drought extends to six years, let us explore the fundamental reason where things are going wrong for this talented group of individuals.
On the 17th anniversary of the Natwest Trophy win at Lord's, Mohammad Kaif came up with an interesting comment.
When asked by the show anchor Gautam Bhattacharya about his thought process during the memorable match-winning innings of 87* in the match, Kaif replied that Yuvraj and he could muster that partnership only because both of them had played the previous two years at 6 and 7 in the batting order.
Kaif believes they were already aware of the potential challenges of playing in the lower middle order, and hence could adapt their game according to it on that decisive day at Lord's.
This acquaintance with batting position has historically always been extremely important for batsmen. The most prominent example to justify this statement from the recent past is Rohit Sharma. The moment he was allotted the opener's position in 2013 and given the allowance to settle there, he blossomed into a super-successful player.
The reason India are imploding in pressure situations in ICC tournaments is their unsettled middle order, which is acting as a weak underbelly for oppositions to punch. Even for a senior batsman like MS Dhoni the batting position has not been fixed; he has been oscillating between positions 4 to 7 over the last couple of years.
Apart from Dhoni, the position of the other middle order batsmen is not even guaranteed in the team. Manish Pandey, Shreyas Iyer, Lokesh Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Dinesh Karthik, Vijay Shankar and Ajinkya Rahane have continued to play a game of musical chairs every series in the middle order positions.
This is leading to severe insecurity among players, which in turn is affecting their game in pressure situations.
Ben Stokes' advice to Jofra Archer in the tie-breaking Super Over of the World Cup final, ("win or lose, today doesn't define you; everyone believes in you"), which has drawn much appreciation globally, should serve as an inspiration to the Indian team management. The players need to be assured that they are not playing for their position in the team.
The team management needs to have an eye for raw talent, and once given an opportunity, the player needs to be given time and nurtured in the team environment for the long run.
As India start a fresh cricketing cycle after World Cup 2019, it is of utmost importance that they learn from the mistakes that have plagued them over the past couple of years. With Virat Kohli maturing as a captain with every passing match, the fans in the country would hope that the team starts working towards a stable and experienced middle order immediately.