October 31, 2021: Dubai. After the embarrassing loss to Pakistan in their opening game, six days later, India did something unthinkable against New Zealand in a must-win situation. They changed their tried and tested method completely.
Suryakumar Yadav was out injured. Ishan Kishan had to play and he opened with KL Rahul. Rohit Sharma dropped down to number three and Virat Kohli to number four. It was a desperate bid to save their campaign and it didn’t work. At 48-4 in 10.1 overs, India’s T20 World Cup was over.
Why did Kohli and the team management go down this path?
Top-order dependency is a vital aspect of India’s white-ball game plan. For example, in the two-year build-up to the 2019 ODI World Cup, India’s top-three batsmen scored nearly 70 percent of all their runs. The other hallmark of Kohli’s captaincy was that both white-ball teams bore a stark resemblance to each other.
Whether in batting or bowling, India carried forward the same formula from 50-overs to 20-overs. It worked well in bilateral cricket because India is a fearsome side. It didn’t work well in ICC tournaments because, at crucial junctures, the opposition took advantage of India’s one obvious weakness. From Manchester to Dubai, there was a definitive pattern in how the Men in Blue crumbled against Pakistan and New Zealand.
The shocking top-order change in Dubai, then, was a momentary quick fix to a long-term problem. It was like applying patchwork to a punctured tyre on your Mercedes and hoping it would run even better than before. That night, Trent Boult and Ish Sodhi helped India realize that patchwork wasn’t the answer to India’s problem. You need to change the punctured tyre, treat the Mercedes like the car she is!
Of course, it helps when you change the mechanics as well. Enter Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid, the new captain-coach combination that is spearheading India’s preparations for the 2022 T20 World Cup.
“Template is very important and there are holes to fill. We need to set it right. It’s one of the important aspects of this format where people have assurance of taking chances in the middle. That will be the biggest challenge we will have as a team,” said Rohit Sharma, on the eve of taking charge of India’s T20I captaincy against New Zealand in November.
With two World Cups in 2022 and 2023, India’s batting in white-ball cricket will continue to be pegged around its top-order. Yet, the new team management has taken early cognizance of teething issues in the middle order that need sorting out.
In T20 lingo, India needs big hitters without sacrificing its set template.
India’s batting recalibration can be divided into two: the first stage involving six T20s against New Zealand and West Indies, and the second involving three T20Is against Sri Lanka.
Suryakumar played all six games against New Zealand and West Indies, batting across numbers three-to-five. At no.5, he scored against West Indies at 202.04 (SR) in two innings. When Rishabh Pant moved down the order, he still hit at 112.50 (SR) at no.4. Earlier against New Zealand, he had scored at 140.90 (SR) at no.3, but that’s a position already reserved.
Meanwhile, Venkatesh Iyer has been assigned the no.6 spot. He has batted at that position in seven out of nine T20Is this season, and his consistent run against New Zealand and West Indies sealed this role. His strike-rate at this position is 173.13. These numbers are vital because they narrate a delicate balance in India’s batting approach, particularly since the last T20 World Cup.
Both Suryakumar and Iyer have been given the freedom to hit the ball hard, infusing a new energy into the batting line-up. Despite a change in roles, they have brought forth their adventurism exhibited in the IPL to international cricket. Consider the third T20 against West Indies. India was struggling at 93-4 in 13.5 overs at Eden Gardens. SKY-Iyer then smacked 91 runs off the last 37 deliveries.
When was the last time India batted with such freedom in the shortest format?
In a short span of time, Suryakumar has shown he is comfortable in a varying degree of roles, and in turn, has been given a free rein to expand his gully-cricket approach. With Iyer, there is more method than madness – he opens the innings for Kolkata Knight Riders but there is no scope to do that for the Men in Blue.
Defining their roles is a trigger for greater consistency in India’s white-ball batting. It obviously helps in enforcing the contrast to their IPL batting roles, and on different occasions, Rohit has emphasised the need for this balance.
It serves a dual purpose – one, it helps these batsmen perform with greater freedom in the knowledge that they have the management’s backing. And two, more importantly, it helps finalize India’s options for the T20 World Cup – both first and second choice.
If Suryakumar and Venkatesh Iyer have batted themselves into India’s primary T20 plans, then Ishan Kishan and Shreyas Iyer are proper examples of backup options.
Kishan, for instance, has been assigned the third-choice opener’s role after Rahul-Rohit. Even in Pant’s absence against West Indies and Sri Lanka, when Kishan was additionally kept wickets, he was still asked to open. So much so, Rohit dropped himself down to accommodate even Ruturaj Gaikwad against West Indies, and that was the plan against Sri Lanka as well, before the CSK star got injured. The motive was simple – try as many options as possible, with consistency thrown into the mix.
The dual absences of Kohli and Pant from the last four T20 games against West Indies and Sri Lanka allowed this premise to expand further. Enter Shreyas Iyer!
In November, he batted at no.5 against New Zealand but that didn’t make the necessary impact. That role was re-assigned and Shreyas was relegated to the bench, whilst Kohli was available. These three words are key – why? Through his exploits against Sri Lanka, Shreyas has shown uncanny resemblance to how Kohli bats in T20 cricket – start slow, finish big.
In the first T20, he was at 17* off 14 balls before finishing with 57* off 28. In the second T20, he was at 23* off 14 balls before finishing with 74* off 44. In the third T20, he was at 27* off 17 balls as India was light on batsmen, before finishing with 73* off 45 balls. Shreyas’ initial strike-rate ranges anywhere in the 120-140 region, before rocketing and settling at 160-180 the longer he bats.
Shreyas Iyer obviously has youthful aggression on his side, and that is enough to avoid direct comparisons with Kohli at present. In an ordinary situation, Shreyas Iyer is unmistakably good enough to make the cut. He is an IPL captain after all, a long-term fix for any T20 middle order, and showcased amply just what he will serve up for Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL 2022. From a T20I perspective, this is no time for a Shreyas-Virat debate.
Maybe, at some point, it will come up for discussion. For now, the management has obviously identified that Shreyas Iyer cannot bat lower than no.3 and must wait for his chances. It would otherwise impact the positions of Pant, Suryakumar and Venkatesh Iyer. And India’s ability to go big on-demand is all that matters currently.
A simplified batting line-up: Check.
Pre-defined batting roles: Check.
Unearthing batting options at number five and six: Check.
More firepower in the middle order: Check.
When was the last time India boasted such clarity of thought in its T20 batting plans?