India must go the England way to find their mojo, avoid future heartbreaks
By 2015, England’s white-ball cricket was in shambles. The country that had given the world the sport became everybody’s favourite whipping boys. When they were good, it was just about but when they were bad, they were horrendously so.
England’s problems stemmed from their safety-first approach. A profusion of Test specialists, among them skipper Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, brought the five-day culture to the 50-over variant in which the rest of the world had long left England behind. Every four years, English experts and analysts and media and fans brooded over another failed campaign, another World Cup gone abegging.
The surety with which this event played out was beginning to become monotonous when the tipping point arrived. Cook’s men failed to advance to the knockout quarterfinals of the 2015 50-over World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, swept aside imperiously by Bangladesh in a must-win league tie.
Something had to give. It did.
Seized by the need to stop moaning and start acting, the powers that be set a radical chain of events in motion. Eoin Morgan was elevated as the white-ball skipper, the Test veterans were put out to pasture and the process of identifying fearless, multi-dimensional cricketers began in right earnest.
Today, England are the most feared limited-overs side in the world. They bat with such audacity that it takes the breath away, and because they boast ferocious ball-strikers until No. 10, they continue playing their strokes even if they lose wickets in a rush. The talent-spotting process in which Morgan himself was integral has empowered the captain with so many all-round options that not only is every base covered, but there are also adequate back-ups for multiple players having off-days. There’s a reason why England are within two wins of becoming the first team to simultaneously hold the 50- and 20-over World Cups.
India’s equivalent of England’s 2015 moment is here and now. For eight years, they have gone into global tournaments carrying the expectations of a billion people and disappointed time after time. Sometimes, they made the final, like at the 2014 T20 World Cup and the 2017 Champions Trophy. They often reached the semifinals, but a title triumph was a bridge too far. For all their dominance of bilateral contests, India’s Achilles heel was multi-team competitions that exposed their lack of stamina and staying power.
In the UAE over the last fortnight, India didn’t even threaten the semifinals. Two extraordinarily poor nights did such massive damage that India’s fortunes had slipped out of their own hands. By the time they took corrective measures, the bird had flown. India’s tentativeness against Pakistan and New Zealand came with alarming ramifications; they didn’t just expose India’s technical shortcomings, they also laid threadbare a chink in attitude, a tremor in mindset that opponents gleefully, ruthlessly exploited.
India’s batsmen were fearful, and that’s not something that can often be said of this team, any team, headed by Virat Kohli. An acclaimed proponent and practitioner of aggression and flair, Kohli was as guilty as his colleagues of allowing his mind to be clouded by negativity and self-doubt, particularly against New Zealand when India managed an abysmal 110 for seven in their 20 overs. It was Indian T20 batting at its worst.
Already smarting from a ten-wicket hammering against Pakistan, India keeled over for a second match in a row without a fight to as good as play themselves out of contention. As if that wasn’t bad enough, gaping holes started to become apparent in the make-up of the side, in the lack of options and all-round depth that is a non-negotiable in the existing 20-over landscape.
India’s unshakeable trust in the specialists in even T20 cricket is hard to comprehend or justify. None of the specialist batsmen can so much as turn their arm over, none of the full-time bowlers inspire confidence with the bat. Ravindra Jadeja is an honourable exception; he can hold his own as either a batsman alone or a bowler alone simply because his fielding is a thing of beauty. For all the hype surrounding Hardik Pandya, he doesn’t fall in the all-rounder category because he has bowled too infrequently in recent times to merit that label.
It isn’t as if Kohli and outgoing head coach Ravi Shastri didn’t know the pitfalls of this approach. How they allowed this eventuality is baffling. Neither man has a negative bone in his body, so how did they make peace with the batting implosions against Pakistan and the Kiwis?
One can rest assured that the new coach-captain combine of Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma will draw from the follies and the foibles in the desert sand. They have 11 months to assemble and fine-tune a power-packed, versatile, all-round composite unit before the next T20 World Cup, in Australia. They know that they can ill afford to follow the same flawed protocols of the immediate past and hope/pray for different results.
Dravid and Rohit not merely know what they are looking for but also where to look. The former’s four-year stint with India ‘A’ and India Under-19 between 2015 and 2019, and the subsequent two years as Head (Cricket) at the National Cricket Academy means he knows exactly what resources are available with whom. Rohit is a 14-year veteran at the international level who has led his franchise to five IPL titles and delivered whenever he has had to step in for Kohli.
Their first objective will be to lead the team out of the old-fashioned, 1970s mindset of placing the onus on conservatism. They will encourage the players to shed their inhibitions and bat with the freedom that 20-over cricket necessitates, indeed rewards. They will also guard against fear of failure by assuring players that they won’t be punished for trying to put the attacking culture into practice, never mind the immediate results. Armed with that security, if India can discover their mojo like England did six and a half years back, the UAE heartbreak might not be such a terrible thing after all.