Déjà vu is a French term, pertaining to a situation one has lived through before. Loosely, it translates to something “already seen.” It pretty much sums up India’s current white-ball batting prowess.
The One Day Internationals against Australia were a struggle for Indian batsmen. Yes, they lost the toss. Yes, the targets were too high. Yes, the team is jaded, lethargic even after a hectic IPL and two weeks in quarantine pre-series. All of that is in the short term, though. From a longer-term perspective, India’s batting plan in white-ball cricket seems to be stuck in limbo.
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In the 50-over format, there was that same-old reliance on the top-order. The momentum didn’t shift easily to the middle order despite Hardik Pandya coming good, and the targets were too big. There is still time though, before we start worrying about the 2023 ODI World Cup.
But the 2021 T20 World Cup is less than twelve months away. Since the Indian team management almost mirrors ODI and T20I batting plans, there is cause for present-day concern.
From 50 to 20 overs, there is that top-order dependency again. A ploy to drop anchor, stretch the innings and give a final impetus – there is no real x-factor, no one grabbing the innings by the scruff of its neck. Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma (when fit) have intimidating ability and records, but that plan is tried and tested. The opposition bowling is not caught unaware.
The problem arises, like it did on Friday, when the top-order momentum doesn’t shift through the middle, again classified under the “already seen” in ODI category. Cheap dismissals at the top – Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli out for 10 runs off 17 balls – meant that the middle-order was under duress. Sanju Samson (23 off 15 balls) got a start but then threw it away, as usual. India were stuttering at 90/4 when Manish Pandey got out in the 13th over after 2 off 8 balls.
There was cause for greater concern – Dhawan, Kohli and Pandey accounted for 12 runs off 23 balls. That’s three of your top-six batsmen failing without making an impact, and KL Rahul left holding one end up. Without some miraculous hitting by Ravindra Jadeja later on, India would have finished with a sub-par total and not a competitive 161/7 that ultimately proved just enough.
Over-reliance on top-order: check.
Middle-order misfiring: check.
Dependent on individual brilliance to shine through: check.
No momentum from top to middle: check.
Indian batting lacks dynamism
This is a country that hosts the world’s best T20 competition and yet there is a repetition of batting formula, despite unprecedented riches. In terms of dynamism, India have only pushed through Rishabh Pant in recent times, and now they are repeating that same trick with Sanju Samson.
With twelve months to go for a T20 World Cup on Indian soil, you would think some fresh blood could be thrown into the mix. Maybe not Devdutt Padikkal just yet, or maybe not even Ishan Kishan, but what about Surya Kumar Yadav? Not bringing him on this trip was a colossal error and there is no option for the management other than repeating their batting strategy again and again.
It is a never-ending cycle, a time warp if you will. Keep using the same ODI formula in the shortest format, and the opposition won’t fear you any longer because they would know how to bowl to your batting line-up. It would then be a battle of attrition.
T20 cricket, however, is about chance and calculated risk. Kohli fans may not like it, but take the example of Mumbai Indians. They have a set batting formula, much like the Indian team. Even so, there isn’t a lack of dynamism – any one of their batsmen can step up to any role or situation, and seize the day. They allow batsmen to be adventurous, even when adhering to a set formula. And the opposition’s bowling attack, despite knowing the formula for containing them, is mostly on the back-foot.
This pushback against international bowling attacks is missing from the Indian team because their batting formula is out-dated and the roles they have assigned are rigid. The problem seemed to have been acknowledged during the T20I series at home against West Indies last year, but after a break away from the game, the early signs are that the team is reverting back to where they were.
It starts at the top, where they don’t know what to do about Dhawan. A good IPL 2020 season meant he is back into the playing XI, which perhaps wouldn’t have happened if Rohit were available. So why not use this opportunity to blood in Mayank Agarwal? Perhaps it is because the management still – in 2020 – cannot let go of the left-right opening combination.
It is time for the team management to make a hard decision. In other words, as good a limited-overs’ batsman he might be, Dhawan simply doesn’t fit into India’s T20I plans any longer. And for good reason.
The KL Rahul Factor
Rahul’s role in both ODIs and T20Is is clearly defined, and he has readily accepted them too. While he needs to play the situation in ODIs and provide a finishing touch, his job in T20s is to give the innings impetus. But there is a parallel debate about his strike-rate at the moment.
In the 2020 IPL, Rahul scored at a strike-rate of 129.34. Among Kings XI Punjab’s top batsmen, it was lower than Nicholas Pooran’s strike-rate of 169.71, Mayank Agarwal’s 156.45, and Chris Gayle’s 137.14 (who only played seven matches). It was surprising, for Rahul strikes the ball harder at 145.38 in international T20s.
Is this a cause for concern? Potentially yes, if Rahul continues to bat the way he batted for Punjab.
During the IPL, burdened with captaincy, he chose to play second fiddle to the other batsmen. He egged on Agarwal, Pooran and Gayle to take charge and attack the opposition, whilst himself taking on the responsibility of finishing games. Yes, he dropped the proverbial anchor in T20 cricket.
This anchoring aspect is a problem because Kohli already does that role at number three. Whilst Rohit has a higher tendency to attack, he too takes time to settle down before stepping on the accelerator. Kohli strikes the ball at 138.07 in international T20s, while Rohit’s strike-rate is 138.78. Dhawan, striking the ball at 127.73, doesn’t fit into the current scheme of things precisely for this reason.
On Friday then, Rahul scored 51 off 40 balls at strike-rate 127.50. It won’t make for good reading, but some context is needed. At one stage, Rahul had scored 38 off 26 balls, reaching his highest strike-rate of the innings at 146.15. It was in keeping with the role Rahul has been given, albeit the early wickets of Dhawan and Kohli pegged him back. And later the same happened with the middle-order collapse, again not allowing Rahul to break free, restricting him to play anchor.
The underlying point here is Rahul’s role. While the team management needs to hit the drawing board and chart out another batting plan, Rahul, as India’s T20 opener, holds the key going forward in this search for overall dynamism.
On the road to the T20 World Cup, it is as intriguing as the search for India’s number four in the lead-up to the 2019 ODI World Cup. Will it yield better, nay different, results?