It’s time for Indian cricket to bet on horses for courses

India started the tournament with a spectacular win over Pakistan. Twenty-eight runs needed off eight balls, and Virat Kohli delivered, with some truly extraordinary batting and quicksilver thinking—calling for a no-ball even as he lifted the delivery for a six, and running three after the free-hit ball struck his stumps. But the general ecstasy over Kohli’s feat may have made us overlook certain issues.

That knock was unrepeatable and unique. Yet, sober analysis would conclude that Kohli waited far too long to make the lethal charge. A single error by him in those last few minutes would have cost India the match—a repeat of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s innings in the semi-final against New Zealand in the 2019 50-over World Cup. The asking rate rose above 15 with two overs to go, while Sourav Ganguly in the commentary box kept assuring us that there was hope for India as long as Dhoni was around. But then, Dhoni was run out. The final-over assault never happened.

Here are some questions. One, the powerplay—the first six overs of an innings when only two fielders are allowed outside the 30-yard circle—is critical for the batting side to achieve initial momentum, but does India use it well? In the powerplays of this T20 tournament, India’s strike rate was better than only one team—the UAE. In the England game on Thursday, India was 38 for one at the end of six overs, while England, chasing, scored 63 for no loss.

India’s strategy seems to have been to get a steady start rather than a flying one. But it does not work that way in T20 cricket. New Zealand changed 50-over cricket for all time in the 1991-92 World Cup when opener Mark Greatbatch started hoeing the ball in the initial overs when fielding restrictions were on. Once done, it seemed such an obvious move—after all, cricket’s lawmakers had imposed these fielding restrictions to give the batting side an advantage. Yet, in the T20 Word Cup, India seemed stuck in the pre-Greatbatch era.

Two, it is quite evident that Kohli was told to take some time to settle in and then play through the team’s innings. But the concept of a ‘sheet-anchor’ batter does not make sense in T20 cricket. If this long-haul batter makes 12 runs off 11 balls and then gets out—as Kohli did against South Africa—he has lowered the team’s strike rate and put extra pressure on the batters lower down the order, forcing them to take higher risks. India lost that game. The story was repeated in the semi-final, when Kohli was out for 50 off 40 balls.

Three, why is Suryakumar Yadav, ranked No. 1 in the world in T20s, coming in at No. 4? Should not our best batter be given the maximum possible time at the crease? Instead, almost invariably, we have seen Yadav walking in after powerplay is over, with our strike rate hovering around a sluggish six. In his current form, the man seems capable of walking on water on most days. So why are we confining him to a smaller lake than we can give him access to?

These and many other questions are subsets of a broader query. T20 cricket is evolving rapidly, but is the Indian team’s thinking adapting at an adequate pace?

The format is brutal, the game is always on a cliff edge. Every dot ball counts and one 17-run over can turn the match on its head. There are only 20 overs, and the ball stays fresh throughout the innings. The best strategy perhaps is what England has been following since Brendan McCullum took over as coach: hit the ground running and keep sprinting, without caring for stumbles.

A comment by England captain Jos Buttler in the press conference before its semi-final match with India was revealing. When asked what he thought could be a “par score” in the game—par score being a term much bandied about and discussed in the media and commentary boxes, Buttler replied: “We are not interested in a par score. We are only interested in a winning score.” The ‘par score’ idea is an inherently limiting one—a team batting first with the thought that it should get at least 150 or the bowling team betting that it has a good chance to win if the rival team scores less than, say, 140 Buttler’s view has no horizons—you just go out there and give it your very best, bat and bowl with unrelenting aggression. If you lose, there is always another day, but the strategy doesn’t change.

The Indian team management should insist that the first three batters must not worry about their wickets and try to score at eight runs plus per over right from the start. A message must be sent to senior batters that they cannot take their place in the team for granted and have to score at a minimum strike rate of 140, even if that means living dangerously.

Suryakumar Yadav should be promoted up the order. It makes no sense that he is always fighting the clock when he comes in to bat. What about making Hardik Pandya India’s T20 captain? He is naturally aggressive, and won the last Indian Premier League in his first season as captain with a team which was playing its first IPL on a much lower budget than most other teams.

In this T20 World Cup, India played some outdated cricket. It’s time to look at the specific requirements of each of the three formats—Tests, 50-over and T20—and select horses for courses: the right strategies and players, that is, for these.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’ and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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