Rahul Dravid's Total Cricket and Indian team's way ahead
There was a touch of class about India that was obvious even to a casual onlooker. Against arguably one of the more dangerous, if volatile, T20 sides, India unleashed a brand of cricket that was at once awe-inspiring and another timely reminder of their growing comfort with international 20-over cricket. The commanding 4-1 score-line in a five-match series against West Indies, India’s last T20 engagement before the Asia Cup in the UAE later this month, was every bit illustrative of the gulf in class between the teams.
Making light of the sluggish tracks that greeted them in the Caribbean and Lauderhill (where the last two games were staged), India amassed totals of 190, 191 and 188 in the three of the four games where they batted first. For an outfit that struggled not so long back to gauge the ideal approach while setting a target, these are exceptional numbers and further validation of their rediscovered zest for the 20-over format which has manifested itself in a supremely carefree attitude whose basis, however, doesn’t stem from recklessness.
On the face of it, it has been a fairly tumultuous, unsettled year for Indian cricket thus far. Across the three formats, as many as seven men have led the national side, a new high necessitated by illness, injury, a resignation and workload management. On the one hand, it might seem to point to a certain uncertainty — how can a country have these many captains in such a short span of time, no matter the provocation? On the other, though, it speaks to the depth of leadership options at the decision-makers’ disposal and a willingness to punt on the youth — Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya and even Jasprit Bumrah being cases in point.
Almost as many men have opened the batting in T20Is in 2022 as have led the team in the three different variants. Again, that might be construed as a sign of addled thinking at first glance, but a slightly more introspective look will not be out of place.
Modern-day cricket has veered dramatically and inexorably from the past when there were set patterns and principles at play. While the basics will remain unaltered till eternity, the present demands a flexible, versatile adaptability that revolves around being prepared for all eventualities. That India have pressed as many as a half-dozen openers into service in T20Is this year must be viewed against that backdrop.
The multiple partner’s skipper Rohit Sharma has had or those that have opened when Rohit hasn’t played are not mere exercises in identifying who best fits the second opener’s bill. They are as much about getting these batsmen accustomed to playing up front, against the new ball, so that if they are thrust to the top of the tree for some unforeseen reason at, say, the Asia Cup or the World Cup in Australia in October-November, they don’t come in cold.
Rahul Dravid’s insistence on getting his batsmen mentally and batting-wise prepared to bat at any position is a somewhat original cricketing idea, though its genesis probably lies in the concept of Total Football propounded in the Netherlands in the early 1970s. Ajax Amsterdam, the top Dutch club, and the Dutch national team themselves, embraced this idea whole-heartedly, with the legendary Johann Cruyff at the heart of this innovation.
Total Football essentially meant despite nominated designations as full-back, midfielder or forward, players were encouraged to play out of position so long as the others filled in those gaps. Essentially, that meant that beyond the goalkeeper, no one had to occupy that same position for the duration of the 90 minutes. It was a plan that worked wonderfully well. Ajax continued to court huge success in the domestic league while the Dutch national side made it to the final of the 1974 World Cup, where it took the brilliance of Gerd Muller and the mastery of Franz Beckenbauer to stop them.
The Indian cricket head coach’s ‘Total Cricket’ idea isn’t without merit, any which way you look at it. For the time being, and one suspects it will remain so, the only two individuals who have remained untouched are Rohit the opener and Dinesh Karthik the finisher. Rohit will continue to be the lead opener and Karthik has specifically been reintegrated with the T20 set-up to tee off towards the end of the innings, which means he will only walk in when between 24 and 30 deliveries of the designated 120 are left.
The remaining batsmen — Suryakumar Yadav, Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer, Ishan Kishan, Hardik Pandya, Deepak Hooda, Sanju Samson — who have played the bulk of India’s T20Is this year have been employed as floaters, flitting up and down the order so that they get familiar with the demands of different situations, different conditions, different attacks and different dynamics at different stages of a 20-over innings. This essentially provides a back-up in the event of injuries and illnesses, the latter a particularly genuine risk given that Covid-19 is showing few signs of going away entirely.
There is a certain roundedness to this core batting group that has come together quite nicely, but things are bound to change in the next fortnight when Virat Kohli and/or KL Rahul return to the fold. Kohli has played just four T20Is this year and Rahul none. While they will buy into this Total Cricket philosophy – truth be told, they really don’t have an option – their presence will necessitate a rejig that could shake up the recently established order. While neither man’s pedigree is in any doubt, they have been far removed from the goings-on within the camp for so long that it will understandably take them time to adjust to the new normal as far as the Indian T20I side is concerned. Whether the team can afford that much time is the million-dollar question.
India has a minimum of 11 T20Is between now and the World Cup to apply the finishing touches to their preparations. From all accounts, those preparations will encompass Kohli and Rahul as well. Should the other pieces be moved around to accommodate both in the playing XI, given the beautiful shape the batting group has taken without them? That could also be one of the objectives of Total Cricket, come to think of it.