If imitation is the best form of flattery, England have reason to pat themselves ironically on the back. After all, it was by adopting England’s uber successful template that India pulled the rug from under the feet of world’s top T20 side in a rip-roaring battle of equals.
England made a conscious decision to shed timidity and diffidence from white-ball cricket after their first-round elimination from the 2015 50-over World Cup. They handpicked specialists and embraced all-out aggression, resurrecting their fortunes in spectacular fashion by making the final of the World T20 in 2016 and ending their 50-over drought with World Cup success at Lord’s in 2019. Out of necessity had been born a smashing winning formula.
Perhaps in a long-winded way, India find themselves in a similar predicament. For all their success in bilateral series and continental tournaments, they haven’t lifted global silverware since the 2013 Champions Trophy. Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri chose to work on India’s approach to batting, and batting first especially, in the 20-over game.
Having stuck to the traditional build-gradually-and-explode-at-the-finish blueprint, the captain and head coach decided to take a different, more adventurous and proactive route ahead of the five-match series against England. Clearly, their call to junk the old and deploy the new was neither arrived at in haste, nor without deep analysis. It was apparent from the choice of batting resources picked, most notably Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav, that the decision-makers had thought long, hard and far before pulling the plug on conservatism.
The success of any game plan depends on execution. India seemed a little too obstinate in their desire to stick to their renewed commitment to going hell-for-leather at the start of the series when, twice in the first three games, the top-order came unstuck against the raw pace of Mark Wood and Jofra Archer. By the time the series hurtled to its climax, though, India had married their attacking instincts with great prudence in shot-selection so that they weren’t trying to hit every ball out of the park, only those that weren’t delivered with the utmost precision and threat.
It helped, too, that Kishan and Yadav slipped seamlessly from domestic and franchise cricket to the international level. In their respective first hits on the most demanding of stages, they exploded in a paroxysm of stroke-play familiar to IPL-watchers. There was no stage-fright, no sign of nerves, no intimidation by the cauldron of country vs country battle. With their exciting, electric and effervescent brand of batsmanship, the two Mumbai Indians stars vindicated the revamped Kohli-Shastri approach while reiterating that the T20 team wouldn’t be the poorer for jettisoning such established names as Shikhar Dhawan and the horribly out-of-form KL Rahul.
It is from Rahul’s miserable run of scores — and an untimely fielding injury that kept Kishan out of the last two games – that India might have accidentally unearthed the game-changer. For the first time since they were united in the national team more than a dozen years back, Kohli and his white-ball deputy Rohit Sharma opened the innings in the decider on Saturday night. What a spectacle that turned out to be.
Kohli has occasionally flirted with the opening slot, both for Royal Challengers Bangalore and for India, but had never occupied the pole position when Rohit was in the Indian XI. Hindsight will tell us he perhaps should have long back, but there is a reason why it is called hindsight. Now that the wisdom of having the side’s two best batsmen at the top of the tree has been revealed, it’s likely they will bat together at Nos. 1 and 2 in the 20-over game more often than not, and especially when India are setting a target.
One of the reasons for the reluctance to throw the two most seasoned batsmen together might have been the once-justified fear of leaving the middle-order in inexperienced hands. That’s no longer the case. Hardik Pandya has just slipped into his sixth year at the highest grade, Rishabh Pant has completed four years, and Shreyas Iyer made his India debut as far back as November 2017. Kishan might be only 22, but he has a staggering 97 T20 appearances to his name, half of them in the high-pressure IPL, while the 30-year-old Yadav has played senior T20 cricket for 11 years now, is closing in on 200 caps, and averages nearly 31 at a strike-rate of 140.94.
India are now in a position to trust the middle-order to understand its roles and responsibilities, which in turn will encourage more Rohit-Kohli tandems at the top. Situational and tactical challenges will entail splitting the duo from time to time, which shouldn’t affect team dynamics too much because there are enough other opening resources to fall back on.
While the stunning impacts of Kishan and Yadav have understandably grabbed the spotlight in what is essentially a batsman’s game, the biggest positive for India in the T20 World Cup year is the return to action, and peak efficiency, of Bhuvneshwar Kumar. The swing exponent slipped easily back into top gear after a long time on the sidelines recovering from multiple, unrelated injuries, affording a control Kohli didn’t always get from his other experienced bowler, leggie Yuzvendra Chahal. Bhuvneshwar’s excellent comeback after 15 months away from international cricket, and Pandya’s return to a four-over bowling option, might have flown under the radar a little, but these are as significant developments as the putting together of the puzzles of the batting jigsaw.
Shardul Thakur’s continued progress is another step in the right direction for the 2007 World T20 champions, whose bowling will wear an even more threatening look with the return of the recently wedded Jasprit Bumrah. Problems with spin persist given Chahal’s sustained travails, but Ravindra Jadeja isn’t too far away from a comeback.
India are almost spoilt for choices, with no one in a position to take his place for granted. It is, as they say, a good headache to have.