A World Cup heartbreak is nothing new for an Indian cricket fan. There was the 1996 disaster at Eden Gardens, the 2003 final at Centurion, the mess that was the 2007 edition to name a few. So much so that, the 2015 semi-final exit was (or at least, should have been) more palatable despite what the news channels that day might have had you believe.
Where does the 2019 exit rank, then? It was heartbreaking because Ravindra Jadeja’s mesmerising counter-attack deserved better. It was heartbreaking because Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah deserved to be at Lord’s for the tournaments they have had. It was heartbreaking because this team has been consistent around the globe in the past two years, as well as during this tournament.
It was also heartbreaking because some of the flaws that led to the defeat had been evident for a while and nothing was done to fix them.
It’s not the end of the world, of course. This Indian team is still the best in the world in the longest format and quite close to attaining that position in One-Day Internationals too. There is a lot that went right during the World Cup but the planning for the next phase has to begin now.
What does the road ahead look like? For starters, it is fair to assume that the core group of cricketers will remain in place: Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Hardik Pandya (and to a lesser extent) KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja, Yuzvendra Chahal, and Kuldeep Yadav should be around when we do this all over again four years from now.
What about the rest?
The MS Dhoni question
...that no one really has answers to yet. Virat Kohli said in the aftermath of the New Zealand defeat that he has not been informed yet about any decision from Dhoni but the consensus seemed to be that he has played his last World Cup match for India. (Fairly obvious one at that, given he will be 42 by the next edition). Is he looking to play in the T20 World Cup late next year in Australia? And will he continue playing ODIs till that time to stay match-fit? Or is there a farewell series at home around the corner? With Dhoni, no one... but him, ever knows.
The sooner there is clarity on Dhoni’s future, the quicker India can look to fortify that middle order again. Whether you were a fan of his batting in recent times or not, there is no denying that Dhoni brought experience to this batting lineup: 350 ODIs worth of it. He was crucial in the series win in Australia. Take him out of the equation and the middle order, as it is currently, looks undercooked.
The wicket-keeping part of the equation should be covered by Pant (as well as the likes of Ishan Kishan keeping the heir-apparent on his toes).
If the management is looking at options like Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey to add some experience to the middle order then a new finisher and a lynchpin must be groomed starting now, so that four years down the line, experience would not be an issue.
The middle-order conundrum
You have heard or read or talked about the middle-order muddle umpteen times in the last few months, have you not? Indeed, it’s an issue that has been repeatedly brought up on these pages as well. As has been pointed out here, 12 batsmen batted at number four in the past 24 months with Ambati Rayudu playing the most number of matches; he wasn’t picked for the World Cup. Not to say his selection would have been a fix for the middle-order, but it highlights a lack of clarity from the team management (including, very much so, the selectors).
So what next? Kedar Jadhav is 34. Dinesh Karthik is 34. Rayudu is 33. (Oh wait, he has retired). Of the current squad, only Pant is a viable option to be around four years from now.
Retain the bowling core
Bumrah is the undoubted leader of this bowling attack for the foreseeable future and Indian cricket must do everything in its power to make sure he is not burnt out. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav and yes, Ravindra Jadeja have done their bits in pieces as well during the tournament as well as in the months leading up to it to make sure they form the core for the four years to come.
With solid backup options available across the board, it seems all they would need is proper grooming (in terms of ‘A’ tour experience) and spending time with the national team when the main weapons need a rest.
When the dust settles, one needs to ask why an Indian opening batsman rated as highly as KL Rahul is so dodgy outside his offstump. The fact that he gets out like he did in the semi-final so often should force us to question if he is getting the right coaching. (Yes, coaching is still a thing at the highest stage... it cannot be all just about motivation.)
One needs to ask why Rishabh Pant was not blooded into this team in the last two years. For a man of undoubted talent, to be thrown into the deep end with barely any international white-ball experience at the biggest stage is more galling than his shot-selection that pundits grumble about. It again goes back to all the experimentation.
This bunch of players produced some fantastic cricket over the past two years, and more so at the World Cup. For a fan, there is plenty to be proud of but one cannot help but feel things could have been better with better planning from the support staff and that is not just limited to Ravi Shastri. The batting coach and selectors (whose tenure will also come to an end) have to take stock of their decisions as well and rectify errors.
Bring the Shubman Gills, Shreyas Iyers and Navdeep Sains into the fold as early as possible and persist with them. When a middle-order batsman walks out to bat at the next World Cup, he should not be doing so for the first time in his career as it happened with Pant this time around. Even Vijay Shankar realised he was the first choice No 4 only when the World Cup squad was announced.
Kohli was right in his assessment that 45 minutes of poor batting in a tournament where they otherwise played some fantastic cricket eventually led to their ouster. But the planning, or lack thereof, in the years leading up to the tournament cannot and should not be ignored, when the dust settles on this World Cup exit. No one can predict what’s going to be the scene four years from now, but — as he says often in his interactions with the media — building a strong squad is a ‘controllable’. As in, it is something that the think tank has in their own hands.
There are plenty of unknowns in this equation as of now, but the sooner the backroom staff, the selectors and the captain sit down and create a roadmap for the next tournament and stick to their guns, the better it is for Indian cricket as the World Cup returns to India next time around.