India vs Pakistan Rohit Sharma Babar Azam
India captain Rohit Sharma and his Pakistani counterpart Babar Azam during the captains' event ahead of the ICC T20 World Cup 2022 in Australia. Photo: ICC

India vs Pak at T20 WC: Heart may beat for India, but mind sounds caution

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“Very nervous!” Rohit Sharma smiled at the huge attendant press corps as he adjusted the mikes and settled down at the head table. Disarming and affable as he is, it’s hard to see Rohit being nervous, let alone very nervous, about anything.

That doesn’t mean the Mumbaikar isn’t tough as nails. His genteel demeanour and ready smile might be at odds with the public persona his predecessor presented, but Rohit is every bit as fiercely competitive as Virat Kohli is. It’s just that he channels his competitiveness and aggression differently.

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New approach

It’s been 11 months since Rohit took charge of India’s limited-overs sides, and a little over seven months after he was anointed captain across formats. Rohit’s elevation to the high-profile, high-pressure job coincided with one of the worst phases in India’s T20 history, marked by successively timid, limp defeats to Pakistan and New Zealand respectively in last year’s T20 World Cup in Dubai.

Even before the start of that tournament, Kohli had announced his decision to quit as T20 captain. With Ravi Shastri’s tenure as head coach too coming to an end, India would have a new management team in place from early November. Few imagined when India squared up against Pakistan on 24 October 2021 that the new brains trust – Rohit and head coach Rahul Dravid – would immediately have to embark on a radical mission to reinvigorate India’s approach to the 20-over game.

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It wasn’t so much the losses to Pakistan and New Zealand alone that rankled. Having walked the talk and decimated teams like Australia and England in their own backyard in the Test arena with high-octane cricket, India were unrecognisable in Dubai. It was as if they had collectively been overcome by the fear of failure, that their feet were made of lead, that their minds were shackled by unseen yet unshakeable chains. It was painful to watch; one can only imagine how much more painful it must have been for the protagonists, much maligned and castigated for their tameness.

The road ahead of Rohit and Dravid was clear – rid the team of the negativity of failure, exhort and encourage and, if necessary, coerce them to shed their diffidence and buy into the new philosophy of fearlessness that had become non-negotiable. Towards that end, it was incumbent on the think-tank to instill in the players’ freedom and security, words Rohit harped on Saturday afternoon, ahead of India’s opening game in this edition’s T20 World Cup against Pakistan on Sunday (October 23).

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“Over the last year or so, we have seldom focussed on the result,” he revealed. “It’s all about getting the players to focus on their roles and play with freedom without worrying about the result.”

Impressive bilateral record

Towards that end, India have had 35 chances to get their act together – that’s the number of T20Is they have played between World Cups. Some of them were under a new dispensation, with Hardik Pandya or Rishabh Pant or Shikhar Dhawan as skipper and VVS Laxman as head coach, but Rohit has played 26 of those 35 games, in which India have tried out as many as 29 personnel.

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The results have been quite satisfying. India have won nine of the 10 bilateral series since their abject surrender in Dubai, the other ending in a 2-2 stalemate at home in June against South Africa with the decider being washed out. The net, which was cast far and wide, has snared two outstanding performers in Suryakumar Yadav and Arshdeep Singh, the former the X-factor batsman the team so desperately craved and latter a strapping left-arm quick who has a superb yorker, a deceptive bouncer and a variety of slower ones, all must-haves while bowling at the death.

The net also landed Deepak Hooda, the tall batting all-rounder who staked his claim with a stunning century in Ireland, and a rejuvenated Dinesh Karthik, the old wine resurfacing in a new bottle, if you like. Identified as the finisher by Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), the 37-year-old worked his backside off in the lead-up to the IPL and responded to his franchise’s call with a bushel of aggressive, impressive runs in the final stages of the innings.

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So exhilarating were his approach and returns that he made it impossible for the decision-makers to overlook his claims to national colours. Since his international comeback for the first time in nearly two and a half years, Karthik has supplanted Rishabh Pant as the preferred wicketkeeper-batsman-finisher despite the latter’s left-handedness, a tribute not just to his spirit and character but also to the willing flexibility of a management group that isn’t afraid of taking the path less trodden.

Nine-year ICC title drought

India’s record in bilateral play in the last several years has been exemplary, but they have been less than behemothian in multi-team competitions. Not since 2013 and the Champions Trophy in England has an Indian captain hoisted an ICC title, Kohli’s entire captaincy career flying by without any meaningful silverware. Rohit, therefore, embarks on a mission to correct that anomaly, confident that his side has what it takes to cross the finish line while being acutely aware that Indian teams of different hues haven’t been able to fulfil the expectations of their die-hard fans for nine years now.

Also read: T20 World Cup: India vs Pakistan: It’s a challenge not pressure, says Rohit

Creative scriptwriters might label Sunday’s showdown against Pakistan at the magnificent MCG as ‘repeat or revenge,’ alluding to the result of their last T20 World Cup clash, which Pakistan lorded by 10 wickets. Such hyperbole, however, is unlikely to touch either side. No matter what the other considerations might be and irrespective of how the political climate might line up, cricketers from India and Pakistan have always shared a fabulous relationship bound together by genuine admiration and affection for each other and mutual respect that only one sportsman can show another. There may no longer be thick friendships in rival camps, like between Gundappa Viswanath and Wasim Raja, say, but that’s more a sign of the times when players are seldom friends with their own teammates, let alone with the opposition.

Eventually, though, it will boil down not just to who is hungrier or has the greater will to win, but who executes their skills better. The heart might beat for India, but the mind sounds a caution – wait and watch.

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