India’s shock T20I series defeat to Windies underlines need to groom all-rounders
The temptation to expect a plethora of all-rounders to spring forth from the IPL is perhaps inevitable, but it is also a little naïve. | Representative image

India’s shock T20I series defeat to Windies underlines need to groom all-rounders

It is essential that a conscious effort is made to identify and groom players who are very good in one discipline and competent in another

It took West Indies six years to register their first T20 International series victory against India, their 3-2 triumph a reflection of the quality of the two sides and of the visitors’ inability, especially, to grab the moments that mattered.

On the face of it, this isn’t a terribly bad result for a young Indian side minus several first-choice players. West Indies had close to their best side out on the park game after game and India can take pride in having pushed the power-packed outfit that relishes the 20-over shootout all the way, but that’s as far as they should go.

The next T20 World Cup isn’t until June-July and all guns are trained on the 50-over World Cup, beginning in Ahmedabad on October 5. And while that will understandably occupy the mind space of Ajit Agarkar’s selection panel for the next month and a half, they will also acknowledge that they can’t ignore certain T20 home truths.

Lack of balance

Almost without exception, the most dynamic T20 sides are replete with multi-dimensional players. They may not necessarily fall into the ‘genuine all-rounder’ category, but then again, in 20-over cricket, they don’t have to. The demands of this specific variant are different, one of them being a singular disenchantment with ‘specialists’. The Indian squad that did duty in the five games in the Caribbean and the United States, however, was filled with specialists, batsmen who can hardly bowl and bowlers who can’t be relied upon for even one meaty blow.

It’s a fundamental flaw that must be addressed post-haste, otherwise despite possessing the world’s most vibrant and lucrative T20 franchise league, India will continue to flounder in multi-team events. Given the strength of their batting, they will probably end up winning more matches than they lose, but at the crunch, in a do-or-die situation, the lack of balance will come back to haunt them, as it has several times in the past.

Take the 11 that played in the series decider in Lauderhill on Sunday. Between the top four – Yashasvi Jaiswal, Shubman Gill, Tilak Varma and Suryakumar Yadav – only three overs were sent down in the entire series, two by Varma and one by Jaiswal. The bottom four – Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Arshdeep Singh and Mukesh Kumar – contributed 35 runs in nine combined hits. There were three designated all-rounders in Sanju Samson, the wicketkeeper-batsman, skipper Hardik Pandya and Axar Patel.

Samson made 32 runs in three innings, Pandya the batsman has gone off the boil with his ball-striking skills in cold storage, and the captain didn’t trust Axar to bowl more than 11 of his potential 20 overs in deference to the left-handed might of the Caribbean batting. Is it any surprise then that the team ended up on the losing side? The surprise, if at all, is that they ran their opponents so close.

Multiple skills hold key

This isn’t a trend restricted to this 15 alone. Even when some regulars return, barring Ravindra Jadeja, they don’t have multiple skills to offer. Jasprit Bumrah is primarily a bowler only, as are Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj and Prasidh Krishna; in the unlikely event of Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli returning to the T20I landscape, they will do little to augment the bowling resources. It is essential, therefore, that a conscious effort is made to identify and groom players who are very good in one discipline and at least competent in another – it’s a given these days that being a good fielder is non-negotiable – to augment the resource pool that India so desperately need to amass ahead of the World Cup.

The temptation to expect a plethora of all-rounders to spring forth from the IPL is perhaps inevitable, but it is also a little naïve. Franchise cricket is an entirely different beast and because every XI can have four overseas players, teams often turn to all-round talent from across the seas to shore them up. As if that weren’t enough, the Impact Player rule introduced last year has proved a huge dampener so far as Indian all-rounders are concerned.

The potential to bring on a 12th player at any stage to bolster either the batting or the bowling means the onus on the specialists remains unchanged even if the format dictates otherwise. While the Impact Player option might add to the excitement quotient, it has done little for Indian cricket – the rule hasn’t been extended to the international level and it is unlikely to be – other than show up the glaring lack of versatility within the mix.

Look beyond IPL

All-rounders don’t crop up willy-nilly, which is why they are such precious commodities. The term ‘all-rounder’, it must be emphasised, is being used loosely and only from the T20 perspective here. In the past, India have fielded, and jettisoned, multi-skilled players like Vijay Shankar and Shivam Dube, hard-hitting batsmen who can bowl brisk medium-pace. They tried to ‘manufacture’ an all-rounder in Venkatesh Iyer, a move that predictably backfired because Iyer didn’t have the volume of bowling behind him that is required for one to hold his own in international cricket.

The imperativeness of looking beyond the IPL and focusing more intently on domestic cricket, and specifically the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy all-India tournament, to handpick and nurture players with more than one string to their bow, has never been more pressing. The IPL is a more visible and high-profile platform, but it is in the anonymity of domestic cricket that raw talent aplenty waiting to be polished lies.

Efforts are underway through focused camps at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, where VVS Laxman and his team are leaving no stone unturned to keep the supply line going. But an even more streamlined approach is the order of the hour and has to be one of the key items on the agenda of Agarkar, who took charge as chairman of selectors only last month.

India have paid a heavy price in the past for their ‘ostrich in the sand’ philosophy, but burying their heads in a bid to dissociate themselves from reality isn’t going to serve any purpose. For them to have a meaningful impact on the larger T20I ecosystem, they must ensure that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. The trick lies in assembling these parts, and according them the space, freedom, confidence and security to express themselves.

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