The setting is the pre-match press conference on Tuesday, ahead of the series decider between India and West Indies. In the hot seat, if such a thing exists for him, is Rohit Sharma. The question is regarding India’s approach to batting in Twenty20 Internationals.
“This format is such that you have to take risks to get on the top,” said Rohit, before taking a pause.
Rohit is a hard man to read at the best of times. He has the knack to say something completely serious but with a smile on his face that makes it hard to gauge how serious he is. Here, he started off in a contemplative tone. And a line that actually gave away quite a bit about India’s approach to T20I batting and how different it is from modern day T20 batting. That one line sounded like it came from the data-obsessed Mumbai Indians captain. But, soon enough, that man seemed to disappear and the Indian vice-captain emerged back.
“Again, for us, it will be important what we as a team can do. Not to try and replicate what the other team is doing or what the other team is trying to do. They back their strength, which is to play a few balls and then go after a big shot. But for us, it’s totally different. We believe in taking singles and doubles and putting the pressure on the bowler by getting eight-nine an over without taking risks,” he finished.
As it turned out, it was almost the perfect bluff with India clinching the series, thanks to one of their most devastating, high-risk-high-reward batting displays seen this format.
Cut to the first over of India’s innings on Wednesday. Virat Kohli had lost the toss a little while back and would not have been surprised to hear Kieron Pollard wanting to bowl first. Dew. True pitch. Wankhede Stadium. Chasing was the obvious choice. But, Kohli said he wanted his team to not be tentative. It was the first sign.
The second sign came when Sheldon Cottrell was at the top of his run-up. Rohit had a new stance: opening his shoulder up, with his feet facing cover instead of point, staggered instead of being aligned with the crease. It was as if he was getting ready for a slog in the death overs. Of course, he did not slog but the intent was made plain and obvious even before a ball was bowled. Forget the fact that just five came off that over, it was the one boundary that Rohit hit over mid-off with that open stance that set the tone.
From there on, it was an all-out attack. The innings run rate did not come down below 10 after the third over as Rohit and KL Rahul put on 135 for the first wicket before Kohli unleashed his inner beast for the second time in three matches to take India to a match-winning 240/2 at the end of 20 overs.
India's innings progression at Wankhede
|Over||Score at the end of over||Number of runs in the over||Run rate at the end of over|
The platform for that total was laid by India’s approach in the powerplay. By now, there is no doubting Rohit’s caliber as one of India’s all-time great white-ball batsman, but plenty of credit must go to KL Rahul for doing what he does best in this format: take the attack to the opposition in the powerplay. By now, there should be no doubts in the team management’s thought process that Rahul offers plenty more to this team as an opener than Shikhar Dhawan. Hopefully, he is will be stopped being treated as a backup option after his match-winning 91 off 56 balls.
That Rahul’s innings was the slowest on the night for Indian batsmen who got off the mark, said its own story. Rohit was due a big knock at the top of the order after two low scores in the series and he decided to tee off at his home ground. His six-hitting skills are second to none in this Indian team and with that much-awaited 400th international maximum out of the way early in the innings, Rohit took the attack to both spinners and pacers alike and kept his foot firmly on the gas.
And then came the icing on the cake from Kohli. A 21-ball half century, seven sixes in his innings of 71 off just 29 balls: it was fireworks from the Indian captain. This series has reignited an aggressive streak in an otherwise sombre batsman in the middle these days and while some find it unpalatable, it is what Kohli does best. We have seen in the IPL before that he is not averse to big hits in this format and with Rahul playing anchor, he went berserk at the Wankhede Stadium.
The second-ball duck for Rishabh Pant was the obvious downer on an otherwise perfect night but even that dismissal came about with the the batsman going fearlessly for a big shot, to keep the run rate up.
All in all, this was the batting display that fans of the Indian team have craved for in the shortest format while setting a total. Cast your mind back to the last time these two sides met at this venue. The 2016 World T20 semi-final saw India post 192/2 in 20 overs with four sixes hit in the entire innings. Three and a half years later, Rahul alone hit that many with Rohit and Kohli hitting five and seven respectively.
It is perhaps a bit too soon to herald this as the start of a new era in Indian T20I batting because, of course, one swallow does not make a summer. But clearly, there were lessons to be learnt.
“Batting first, we have been too tight and hesitant, but this pitch allowed us to play freely. It was a good lesson for us and now we need to remember it,” Kohli said after the match.
And that sums it up. India will not always get pitches like the one at the Wankhede, the batting won’t always click together as it did at the Wankhede, but the template is now evident. As Ian Bishop pointed out, necessity is the mother of invention and pushed to score as many as possible in the knowledge of what the West Indies are capable of, India found their T20I batting groove.