India’s last five T20Is have thrown up two spectacular moments. The first came in Dublin, when Deepak Hooda smacked a 55-ball T20 hundred, and then in Nottingham, when Surya Kumar Yadav scored a 48-ball hundred as well.

Overall, only five Indian male batters have scored T20I centuries, and these two hundreds have come after a long gap. Suresh Raina had scored the first century back in 2010, when T20 cricket was played differently. Rohit Sharma has four centuries, the last of which came in November 2018. KL Rahul has another two, the last one coming in July 2018.

Look beyond these hundreds and India’s highest men’s T20I score in 2022 was Ishan Kishan’s 89. Scroll back a couple more years, and Virat Kohli scored 80* in 2021 and 85 in 2020 – India’s highest men’s T20I scores respectively. All of India’s other high-scores, ranging in the 80s and 90s, are dated prior.

This scattering pattern of scoring is indicative of the need for change in approach. Until recently, India’s strategy in this format was too archaic and a key reason for the eventual early exit at the 2021 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup (as highlighted previously in this series). Across the last six months then, changes were duly made, both in personnel and mindset.

The Hooda-Suryakumar centuries thus are certified markers of that change – the message was sent across and assimilated. Indian T20I batting has evolved over the past few bilateral encounters. As the 2022 T20 World Cup appears on the horizon, it is up to the team management and the selectors to enable it further, and not hold back.

Top to middle – it’s about momentum

From January to July, there has been a concentrated effort from India to bat aggressively in T20Is. Through careful rotation and resting key players, various names have been tried for different positions. And yet, there was a common aspect – pre-defined roles. It didn’t matter who opened the innings, or who batted at numbers three-to-five. Irrespective of the name, they needed to confirm to the designated batting approach and team strategy.

Rishabh Pant and Suryakumar Yadav were handed the number four and five roles. When Kohli was rested, Shreyas Iyer occupied the number three spot (against Sri Lanka). Post the IPL, when Dinesh Karthik came into the picture, he has been assigned the number seven/finisher role. After years of fluidity beyond the top three, there is certain rigidity coming about this structure in terms of roles. Consider the England T20Is. Karthik wasn’t sent in early when wickets fell in a flurry, with either Axar Patel or Ravindra Jadeja coming out to bat at six.

Of course, certain changes have been made owing to different team demands. Rahul’s injury meant that Pant opened against England. Suryakumar and Hardik Pandya then commandeered the middle order, with Iyer moving down to accommodate Kohli at number three. Despite these moves, the message emanating from the dressing room has been consistent.

And in keeping with this demand, Indian openers have shown greater urgency in recent matches. In turn, this has had a trickledown effect on the middle order. It’s all about that strike-rate now.

“We, as a team, want to play in a certain way and every player needs to buy into that thought process. All the batters who are part of this squad are willing to take that extra risk,” said Sharma, post India’s 2-1 T20I series’ win over England.

This was an important milestone for the Men in Blue against the 2021 semi-finalists. At near full-strength for the first time in six months, it was the first chance to trial this newfound aggression at full tilt and India came out on top.

It also came away with a very vital talking point.

The Virat Kohli conundrum

When Iyer had smacked Sri Lanka for 204 runs at 174.35 SR in three matches, it raised eyebrows. There was a general acknowledgement that Kohli needed a stellar IPL season. It didn’t happen – 314 runs in 16 matches at SR 115.99 – and further questions were raised.

There was widespread advice given to him to take rest. He sat out the series against South Africa, and stretched it to the first T20I versus England at Southampton. When in-form Hooda missed out in Notthingham thereafter, the spotlight was squarely trained on Kohli.

Two T20Is since February – a mere 12 runs, and it’s not just about runs anymore. Pant opening the innings at both Birmingham and Nottingham indicated India’s unwillingness to move Kohli away from number three. That strike-rate conversation is valid.

Since 2016, Kohli’s strike-rate has topped 150 only once in T20Is across a calendar year – 2017 when he scored at 152.55 in 10 matches. SR 147.93 was his second-best in 2019 across 10 matches again, but there is a steady decline witnessed. In 2020, Kohli scored at 141.82 (10 matches), at SR 132.88 in 2021 (10 matches) and in four matches thus far in 2022, he has scored at 128.57.

Kohli's T20I calendar years by SR

Grouping Mat Inns Runs HS Ave SR
year 2017 10 10 299 82 37.37 152.55
year 2019 10 10 466 94* 77.66 147.93
year 2020 10 9 295 85 36.87 141.82
year 2016 15 13 641 90* 106.83 140.26
year 2021 10 8 299 80* 74.75 132.88
year 2012 14 13 471 78* 39.25 132.67
year 2018 10 9 211 61* 30.14 121.96
*Min 10 matches played (Courtesy ESPNCricinfo Statsguru)

For direct comparison, Rohit Sharma’s strike-rate has touched 150 across 15 games in 2020 and 2021, even if 2022 has been a quiet year for him (SR 129.07). Meanwhile, Rahul has never hit the 150-mark since his debut in 2016, albeit he is the most consistent white-ball batsman for India at present. Also, Kishan has hit the ball at 149.07 in seven games this year.

In any format, number three is a vital position when transferring momentum from the top-to-middle, and more so, in the T20 format. After failure in Birmingham, Kohli came out all guns blazing at Nottingham. A four whipped through mid-wicket fully using his wrists, and then a six smashed straight down the ground. It was Kohli at his majestic best, even if for a couple of fleeting moments.

The Kohli of old would have perhaps struck a single after those two boundaries – that’s his textbook T20 style, one that has fetched him more than 10,000-plus runs in this format. Even so, the Kohli of now has bought into India’s attacking strategy, a given for the team man he is, but what is the end result? For all purposes, these two games against England didn’t yield much.

Back in February, when Kohli did score a welcome half-century (52 off 41 balls) against West Indies, his strike-rate hovered around 120-130 through the innings. The bar has been set higher since his return. However, this amalgamation of strike-rate and resultant runs is a tough balancing act for Kohli at present.

The latter bit is more worrying – he doesn’t seem to be able to buy a run. So much so, to say, his lack of form is worrisome, would be an understatement.

It didn’t help that the legendary Kapil Dev already questioned his spot in the T20 side. The bigger question to ask is if the Indian team management, or even the selectors, can contemplate dropping Kohli at this stage?

“It’s not difficult at all for us because we don’t listen to outside noise. Also, I don’t know who these experts are and why they’re called experts. I don’t get that. They are seeing from outside, they don’t know what’s happening inside the team. We have a thought process, we make the team, we debate and discuss it and think a lot about it,” said Rohit.

“It’s happened with me, it’s happened with XYZ. There’s nothing new. When a player has done well so consistently, then 1-2 bad series, his contribution shouldn’t be forgotten. It might take time for some to understand. But for us, inside and running the team, we know the importance. I’ll request those on the outside, yes you have all the right to talk about it, but for us, it doesn’t matter a lot.”

From all indications, the current answer seems to be no. And if not, what are they willing to do to help him? Afford a longer rope, allow him to regain form and earn his World Cup spot, definitely yes. Contrary to this, Kohli has now been (presumably) rested for the five T20Is in West Indies.

The question to ask here is, if the team management (including the selectors) and the player himself are on the same page?

From Kohli’s perspective, maybe, he himself wants to rest and try clearing his headspace. Even so, can he really afford to walk away at this stage? He isn’t getting the desired results at the crease, and yet, missing even more games isn’t going to fetch those runs, or indeed the required strike-rate.

Further, can he really afford to walk away at this stage? What happens in his absence, when the likes of Hooda, Iyer and/or Suryakumar impress against the West Indies? Can Kohli then simply rock up and reclaim his spot? It’s like being caught between a rock and a hard place.

From the management’s perspective, they have no choice but to respect Kohli’s wishes. At the same time, they also need to keep trialling other options at number three. Clearly, they are willing to delay setting plans for the T20 World Cup just to fit Kohli in. Nevertheless, when the time comes, will the selectors even be ready to have a real conversation regarding his form?

It is a real conundrum, a gamble even given Kohli’s lack of T20I runs, which has been delayed until the Asia Cup (late-August) at the earliest. Meanwhile, the World Cup clock is ticking.