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Balance means different things in different format

Indian captain Virat Kohli has said that K L Rahul keeping wickets has given the team greater options.

Indian captain Virat Kohli has said that K L Rahul keeping wickets has given the team greater options.   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

The lessons of IPL haven’t translated well for India onto the bigger stage

To begin with the obvious, a cricket team is made up of players with diverse skills. The key to success lies in a concept that is still often misunderstood: balance. For Test matches, specialists who have specific roles fill the slots, but as the colour of the ball changes and the number of overs is restricted, there has to be greater fluidity. What appears to be a balanced team for a five-day match may not be so for a T20.

In the shorter formats, it helps when a player brings more than one skill to the game. T20 is a specialised sport, but teams cannot afford to have too many specialists. The exception is the big-hitting batsman. This is something India will have to give much thought to while preparing for the T20 World Cup nine months away. They have enough time and matches (they are scheduled to play 14 beginning with the New Zealand tour) to get it right. It is worrying that they haven’t won the World Cup since 2007 when a whole country was transformed from non-believers in the format to passionate supporters of it. A year later came IPL, and cricket has never been the same.

In the early years of one-day cricket, India made the mistake of playing it the way they played Test cricket. They now sometimes approach T20 like a 50-over game ignoring the fact that it is not a reduced version but a different sport altogether.

T20 may be the least sophisticated form of the game, often turning on luck and power hitting, but looking down on these aspects is not a guaranteed way to win an international tournament. Over a decade ago, much was made of how the IPL would ensure India would win many World Cups, but reality hasn’t caught up with marketing hype yet. The lessons of IPL haven’t translated well for India onto the bigger stage.

Big hitter

The manner in which India lost the semifinals to the West Indies in 2016 — thanks to the six-hitting prowess of Andre Russell — suggested that the big-hitter had the key role. This was confirmed three days later when Russell’s colleague Carlos Brathwaite hit Ben Stokes for four sixes in the final over to snatch the final from England.

The lesson was clear, and endorsed over the years. You need batsmen, at least a couple of them, capable of hitting big and hitting consistently. India have Rohit Sharma at the top of the order but need players lower down who can hit with power and abandon. The likely candidates, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, Manish Pandey, hold out hope — lack of consistency is a problem such batsmen have to live with. But just as teamwork implies shared individual success, it can also be about shared individual failure — where a teammate makes up for another’s failure in a particular match.

It is worth investing in a couple of players who are expected to do little more than hit sixes at will. This might go against the single-skill theory, but works towards team balance.

Despite shots into the stands having become commonplace, no bowler is happy to see the ball disappear thus. The big six — not the well-run single or two, despite Virat Kohli’s incredible record in this area — is to T20 what the forward defence is to Test cricket.

Greater options

Kohli has said that K L Rahul keeping wickets has given the team greater options. The other Rahul, Dravid, was a reluctant keeper, and took up the job under Sourav Ganguly for 73 matches in the middle phase of his career.

In the traditional game, the wicket-keeper was chosen for his abilities behind, rather than in front of, the stumps. India were early rule-breakers and chose Test ‘keepers who could bat, perhaps evens open the innings, rather than the specialists whose runs came as a bonus. There were two reasons for this: the theory that since wicket-keepers had quick reflexes, they would play fast bowling best, and the reluctance of many batsmen to open against the kind of fast bowlers not seen in India.

One of the problems India had at the last World Cup (the 50-over version in England last year) was the lack of team balance. The problem of who should bat at No. 4 was never resolved satisfactorily. When he was coach, Greg Chappell had a theory he applied in the shorter format: flexibility of batting positions. Batsmen should be prepared to go in at any number since the game could swing dramatically at short notice.

This makes team balance even more important. Rahul showed in the recent series against Australia how he could move up and down the order without any discomfort. That, added to his wicket keeping, has given India an unexpected bonus, reducing further the need to go back to Mahendra Singh Dhoni who turns 39 before the World Cup, with only the IPL to test his preparedness.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 9:58:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/balance-means-different-things-in-different-format/article30617450.ece

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