Is India as good at T20 as it can be?

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Indian batting has always been a tad more conservative and circumspect than other international sides due to its traditionally top-heavy line-up. This isn’t compatible with the requirements the shortest format.

Virat Kohli.

A floundering and error-prone India overcame a plucky Bangladesh on Sunday to win a see-sawing match and series. For a while, when the Indian bowlers were under the pump, it looked like Bangladesh would run away with the match but one over turned the game on its head and India would walk back to the pavillion a relieved side.

Just a few days earlier, India had lost its first ever T20 match to its eastern neighbours. Sure, the Indian team was shorn of some of its biggest stars for this series, but so was Bangladesh. While this defeat didn’t quite feel like the sucker punch of India’s prematurely exit from the World Cup in 2007, it had been a long while coming. About three years ago, Mushfiqur Rahim had almost dragged his team across the line in a pulsating encounter at the 2016 World T20; but somehow, that Bangladesh team had found a way to lose the match at the death, losing three wickets in the last three balls. Such a hiccup wouldn’t happen this time around — Bangladesh didn’t lose the opportunity to beat its more fancied opponent. But these results were more a reflection of how much India has been behind the curve in the sport’s shortest format for a while now.

India’s excellent Test team, with all its depth, has been a topic of discussion recently, and deservedly so. Additionally, its ODI team is possibly the best-ever in its cricketing history. But the story is quite different in the T20 format. India started the series in the fifth place — a fair reflection of where it stands in this format. It is hard to believe that a nation that took to the format like a duck to water in the inaugural World T20 and has, arguably, the world’s best T20 domestic league is an also-ran in this format. Over the last few years, the Indian team management has been treating T20s as a proving ground for fresh talent seeking a place in the Indian team. Back in 2017, Ravi Shastri said:

“T20 cricket, for us, we don’t care. You win or lose, it doesn’t matter, but give youngsters the opportunity so you come to know who is in the fray for 2019.” Many, many matches later, India still doesn’t know the identity of the middle order or that of the keeper. What is worse, by conflating the ODI and T20 formats, it does a disservice to both.

 

The team over the last few years has been filled with several “me-too” batsmen who play with this attitude of overvaluing their wicket, rather than learning to build the capability of hitting any of the 120 balls out of the park.

 

Though cricket fans may view T20 as a compressed version of the ODI, it is fundamentally a different sport. You may argue that it is still 11-on-11, played in the same stadium, with same rules and so on, but the grammar of the sport makes it very different from the two longer formats. The balls per dismissal hovers around 70 in Tests and around 40 in ODIs. But in T20Is, this number dips drastically to around 19 but you still have ten wickets. Meaning, on average, a batsman in T20Is faces about three overs, and he has to maximise returns in this short stint at the wicket, which turns traditional cricket thinking on its head. So go-to phrases from the commentator/TV pundit manual such as “playing yourself in”, “set batsman” and “why didn’t he just take a single after scoring a big shot instead of going for another” don’t apply in this format, especially in the first innings when you are looking to score as big as possible in quick time. Therefore, T20 batting is the antithesis of the batting wisdom that applies in the longer formats.

And this is where India has always missed a trick — by not focussing on strike rate or run rate. Primarily, what has been holding India back has been a conservative approach to batting — an extension of the affliction that affects the ODI team as well. Over the last five years, against top teams, India has been the best chasing side, but has fallen short of other teams when it comes to setting a target — this suggests that India struggles to read the conditions right and set an appropriate target more often than not.

At the top of the order are Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, and Virat Kohli, the most-feared top order in ODI cricket today. But their T20I strike rates are hardly commensurate with that reputation (Rohit just about makes it into the top 10 strikers list). IPL stats tell the same story. Over the last five years, Kohli has made an unearthly 60 runs per dismissal in T20Is. But at his strike rate of 139, when 7 wickets are enough to last the entire 20 overs in the average T20I, two Evin Lewises could consistently overcome his output. To be fair, Rohit has upped his game over the last few years (like he showed in the second match against Bangladesh), but there is perhaps only one spot (at most) in a T20I XI for a “classical batsman” who can motor along as other players “explode” around his fulcrum. But the team over the last few years has been filled with several “me-too” batsmen who play with this attitude of overvaluing their wicket, rather than learning to build the capability of hitting any of the 120 balls out of the park.

With the 2020 World T20 looming large, India, a team that has fallen short in several previous editions, should pull up its socks and really try to get its head around the shortest format over the upcoming 20-odd matches.

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