S Africa Twenty20: India struggling to find right mix as series defeat looms

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Six days back, India went into their five-match Twenty20 International series against South Africa on the verge of a world record. Two matches on, they are in the unenviable position of having to win the last three games if they are not to slump to their first series defeat on home soil since 2018.

It’s been a spectacular fall from grace for India, unbeaten in a T20I since October 2021. Ahead of the series opener in Delhi last Thursday, India jointly held the record for the most consecutive T20I victories – 12 – along with Afghanistan and Romania. No. 13 eluded them in the national capital as Rassie van der Dussen and David Miller conjured a spectacular unbroken fourth-wicket partnership. Then, the recalled Heinrich Klaasen produced a special knock on a dodgy Cuttack track to pull the fat out of the fire for the visitors, who are firm favourites now to maintain their proud record of never having lost a T20I series in India.

The four-wicket victory at the Barabati Stadium on Sunday means South Africa have now won seven matches on the trot spanning all three formats against India, starting with the second Test of a three-match series in Johannesburg in January. Already one of their bugbears in the past, the Proteas are fast assuming the proportions of a nemesis, precisely what India don’t require as they fine-tune their plans for the T20 World Cup in Australia this October-November.

Injuries hurting team

It might be tempting to write off these results as owing to India’s decision to put out a less than full-strength team, but that argument will hardly cut any ice given how many peans have been sung to the depth and bench strength that abounds in the country. True, several of the regulars are missing, rested ahead of a busy schedule that involves matches in England, the Caribbean, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and at home leading up to the World Cup. They were dealt a further unkind cut when stand-in captain KL Rahul and left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav were both ruled out injured, a day before the Delhi clash. None of that will be scant consolation to Rahul Dravid, the head coach who would have followed the developments of the last two games with a little frown, if not downright concern.

India are still in the sifting process, trying to separate the men from the boys, so to say, in their quest to button down their best 15 for the World Cup. Right now, the think-tank – primarily the national selectors headed by Chetan Sharma, all-format skipper Rohit Sharma and Dravid himself – might be veering towards the conclusion that perhaps it is time to cull Ruturaj Gaikwad and Axar Patel from the immediate long shortlist, even though Dravid is a firm believer in giving his charges a long rope.

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Neither opener Gaikwad nor left-arm-spinning all-rounder Axar has caught the eye. Gaikwad, coming off a middling IPL after a breakthrough season in 2021, has scores of 1 and 23. He has only played five T20Is, too small a database from which to form a definitive conclusion, but in some ways, India are spoilt for choice at the top of the order. Rohit and Rahul seem the preferred opening tandem though the spunky Ishan Kishan, without a negative bone in his body and threatening to break free from the hit-or-miss label adhering to him, has thrown his hat in the ring, his left-handedness an additional attraction that will be hard to overlook.

Perhaps Gaikwad will continue to get a go as the series moves to Visakhapatnam for Tuesday’s third face-off – it’s a game India must win if they are to keep their hopes alive. And he might yet make it to Ireland, where India take on the home side in a two-match series towards the end of the month. But unless he makes substantial and consistent contributions, he will find it hard to keep himself in the reckoning, not unlike Axar, who has been profligate with the ball in both matches last week and hasn’t looked anywhere near as penetrative as he and the team management would have liked him to be.

Axar is pretty much warming the bench until Ravindra Jadeja returns to action, presumably. Jadeja is clearly the more proven and experienced option and his pedigree should assure him first bite at the cherry, but Axar will feel disappointed that he hasn’t stepped up in the former’s absence. His five overs have gone for 59 runs; his travails have mirrored that of the Indian attack which, in the absence of Jasprit Bumrah especially, has struggled for penetration and paid a heavy price for its inability to make inroads in the middle overs.

Much of India’s success over the last eight months have revolved around their incisiveness between overs seven and 15, with Yuzvendra Chahal a big part in the wicket-taking exercise. The leg-spinner is blowing a little cold at the moment, but he has the class and the knack of rediscovering his mojo when it matters most. India missed a trick by leaving him out of the squad for the last T20 World Cup in the UAE, but it’s a mistake they won’t repeat this time. The Purple Cap winner at the IPL has plenty to offer the national side, and it’s possible that he is a little jaded after his IPL exploits with Rajasthan Royals.

India were on point with the bat in Delhi when they rattled up more than 200 runs on a fabulous batting surface augmented by a lightning quick outfield and extremely small boundaries. On that occasion, they were let down by their bowlers, who were powerless to stop van der Dussen and Miller in the last half-dozen overs. In Cuttack, the middle-order imploded after a promising beginning and, with the honourable exception of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, there was no sting in the bowling, no real threat that Klaasen could not overcome. In any format of the game, the best dot ball is the one that comes with a wicket, so going into a do-or-die game on Tuesday, it may not be the worst idea to unleash the Stallion from Srinagar, Umran Malik.