Just four days ago, things seemed cheerful in the Indian camp. They had won both their group games at the 2022 Asia Cup and were bracing for their second clash with Pakistan to begin their Super Four campaign.

In the pre-match press conference, head coach Rahul Dravid was confident. Reflecting on India and Pakistan’s bowling attacks, he said things in jest that went on to make headlines.

“They are a good bowling side, but we also bowled well to restrict them to 147 (in the first match),” said Dravid.

“End of the day, bowling analysis is the most important thing. You are judged by the results you produce. I respect their bowling but I am very confident that we have a good bowling attack that produces results… (Our bowling) might not look very glamorous but in terms of results we got some guys who produce results.”

Twice, there, Dravid said India has a bowling attack that can produce results. However, it hasn’t taken long for us to be left with questions regarding that claim.

On Tuesday, defending champions India suffered their second successive defeat to find themselves on the brink of exiting the Asia Cup. It was the second match in a row where the bowling attack failed to defend a total.

The cracks had, in fact, started to show in India’s second match of the tournament itself. After posting a total of 192/2 against Hong Kong, India had their opponents on a leash for most part but struggled to pick up wickets. Then they ended up conceding 33 runs in the last two overs after Hong Kong were 119/5 after 18 overs. India won that match with a comfortable margin but in those last two overs, it wasn’t promising to see Hong Kong score nearly the same amount of runs (38) they would go on to score in the next match against Pakistan.

Then came the loss to Pakistan. Defending 181, India got the key wicket of Babar Azam early and even the dangerous Fakhar Zaman was sent back cheaply. But Mohammad Rizwan and Mohammad Nawaz put on a 73-run partnership in 41 balls to put Pakistan on top. India fought back again but 19 runs from Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s penultimate over all but sealed the contest.

Now, against Sri Lanka, India conceded 97 runs in 66 balls before claiming their first wicket. Openers Pathum Nissanka and Kusal Mendis hit India’s bowlers to all corners in what proved to be a match-winning stand. And despite picking four wickets for 13 runs in the middle overs, India leaked 10, 12, 9, 12 and 14 runs respectively from over No 15 to 19, without picking a single wicket, to set up another loss.

Skipper Rohit Sharma, however, remained optimistic after the consecutive defeats that left India’s hopes of qualifying for the final hanging by a thread.

“Come the World Cup, I want to be ready with all answers… There are no long-term worries,” said Rohit. “It is just the two games we have lost back-to-back. Since the last World Cup, we haven’t lost much. We wanted to put ourselves under pressure during this Asia Cup. We are still looking for some answers but when we play a game like this, you get a lot of answers.”

Missing Bumrah

Now, there is no denying that Jasprit Bumrah’s absence has been telling. He is India’s go-to bowler no matter the format or situation and the attack will look more potent once he’s back. But the ongoing Asia Cup has shown that there are quite a few gaps to fill if India are to have a realistic chance of challenging for the T20 World Cup title in Australia next month.

The most worrying aspect is that India’s bowling has struggled at every stage in one match or the other. Against Pakistan, they didn’t have an answer for the Rizwan-Nawaz partnership in the middle overs. Against Sri Lanka, they were dominated in the powerplay and beyond by Nissanka and Mendis. And in all three of their previous matches, India’s bowling couldn’t manage to control the run-flow in the death overs.

Along with the uncertainty in the lower middle order of the batting department and the scoring rate of the top order on occasions, India will need to do a great deal of thinking to settle in on their bowling combination. Ravindra Jadeja’s absence has, of course, made things trickier for the balance of all-rounders that Rohit seeks.

Who are the bowlers that can consistently provide wickets in the powerplay? Do Mohammed Shami and Deepak Chahar make the cut? Shami has received backing from several quarters but he has hardly played any T20I cricket in recent times and we know little about what rhythm he is in. Is Avesh Khan worth persisting with? Should Ravi Bishnoi and Axar Patel get more game-time? Can Bhuvneshwar Kumar and/or Arshdeep Singh get the job done in the death overs? Arshdeep has been impressive at the death but not so much in the earlier stages of the innings.

India are set to play three T20 Internationals each against Australia and South Africa at home between September 20 to October 4. But those two series will perhaps be too late to influence the squad selection for the World Cup, which begins on October 16.

For all of Dravid’s confidence and Rohit’s quest for answers, and all the chopping and changing, we’ve only been left with more questions as India head towards the exit door at the Asia Cup. As things stand, India are in a race against time to find a combination that can produce results… consistently when the stakes are high.

Update: India were eliminated from the race for final after Pakistan’s thrilling win against Afghanistan.