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India vs Ireland: India Reaping the Rewards of Resetting T20 Template Under Kohli

Dileep Premachandran |Cricketnext | Updated: June 28, 2018, 12:46 PM IST
India vs Ireland: India Reaping the Rewards of Resetting T20 Template Under Kohli

File image of Indian Cricket Team. (AFP Image)

The seeds of India’s Twenty20 transformation were sown on the playing fields of Bangladesh and India. At the World Twenty20 in 2014, India romped to the final and were then ambushed by a canny Sri Lanka side. You didn’t need a day’s number-crunching to figure out why they had fallen short. They lacked middle-order oomph and lacked a strike bowler.

As magnificent as Virat Kohli had been, with Rohit Sharma’s sterling support, India had no one capable of muscling the ball to the boundary and beyond in the final stages of an innings. In 142 balls that they faced between them, Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni struck seven sixes. Kusal Perera, though he failed in the final, hit as many off just 83 balls.

With the ball, there was again a void that couldn’t be filled. R Ashwin and Amit Mishra were superb, while Ravindra Jadeja was an adequate foil as third spinner. Bhuvneshwar Kumar took only four wickets, but his parsimony – conceding just 5.42 an over – played a big part in the run to the final.

But there was no second pacer to call on at the death, with Mohammed Shami and Mohit Sharma both leaking runs. It was a problem that should have been fixed in the two years that followed, but by the time India hosted the event in 2016, the answer was to go back to Ashish Nehra, in the twilight of his career.

This time, India got only as far as the semifinal, before being blown away by a blizzard of West Indian big-hitting. That they had got that far was largely down to Kohli, second on the batting charts and once again a byword for incredible consistency.

The rest may as well not have turned up. Dhoni was the second-highest scorer for India, languishing in 36th spot with a mediocre 89 off 70 balls. The bowling was equally pitiful. Ashwin and Jadeja had four wickets apiece from five matches, conceding over seven an over, while Jasprit Bumrah had 4 for 153 from 20 overs.

Teams weren’t asked many questions with the new ball, and the spin threat was seen off without undue alarms in the middle overs. By the time the final overs came up, with wickets in hand, teams were primed to tee off. The ease with which West Indies chased down 193 was a chastening reminder of how far off the pace India were.

Part of the blame for the debacle lay in unimaginative selections, in a refusal to accept that Twenty20 was a different sport altogether. While other teams thrived thanks to the skills of new-age stars like Andre Russell and Carlos Brathwaite, India continued to play T20 cricket from 2007.

It was no surprise therefore that Kohli, after two man-of-the-tournament displays that didn’t fetch him a winners’ medal, wanted to shake things up. Almost every other leading side had some bowlers with beguiling variations. India didn’t, and with Mishra aging and out of favour, there wasn’t even a proper wrist-spin option.

That changed with the promotion of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. Chahal had the advantage of playing alongside Kohli in the Indian Premier League (IPL), on a Bangalore pitch where the slightest error usually meant a six sailing into the stands. As much as his skill and variations, what stood out was his attitude.

Little flustered him, and his background as a chess player could be glimpsed in the way he kept tempting the batsmen to go big. Sure, he got hit sometimes, but like the chess master sacrificing his queen to win the game, Chahal usually knew what he was doing.

Kuldeep offered an angle of attack and bamboozling variety that India simply didn’t have previously. The Jadeja method was like water torture – drip, drip, drip, ball after ball. Kuldeep and his twirling wrists came at you like a snake out of the grass. Even Asian batsmen, allegedly the most proficient against spin, struggled to fathom him in the IPL.

At Malahide on Wednesday night, as one great sporting institution – the German football team – was humbled, Indian cricket showed just how far it has come since that World T20 debacle. Kuldeep, Chahal and Bumrah took all of the nine wickets to fall, while Bhuvneshwar was his traditional miserly self.

Ireland were in the game until the ninth over, having given Chahal some tap in his first two overs. Then, Kuldeep came on and outsmarted Simi Singh in an over where he conceded no runs. Suddenly, the asking rate ballooned to nearly 14, and the game was as good as over. Chahal was taken for four sixes, with James Shannon taking a shine to him, but he kept his composure to take the wickets of Kevin O’Brien and Gary Wilson off consecutive balls in his final over.

Bumrah, who varies his length a lot better now, is a far superior bowler to two years ago, and the only concerns surround the fifth bowler – Hardik Pandya. So far, for all the bluster and bling, Pandya hasn’t done enough with bat or bat to justify his place. As long as the other four are on point, India can carry him. When one or two of them have a bad day, he becomes an unaffordable luxury.

With the bowling bite largely restored, the challenge for Kohli and the team management is to put some muscle into the batting order. The days of batsmen dawdling along at strike-rates of 120 or 130 are passé, thanks to teams like West Indies and England who go full-throttle. KL Rahul and Dinesh Karthik, who had excellent IPL seasons, will doubtless get opportunities over the coming months, as will Manish Pandey to show that he’s better than the poor season he had for Hyderabad.

There’s no shortage of players outside this squad either, with the likes of Rishabh Pant and Shubman Gill already looking ready for the big tent. Most importantly, India appear to have recognised that excellence in the longer formats means nothing when it comes to the right-here-right-now nature of T20. For every freak like Kohli, who can tailor his game to suit any eventuality, there are ten others who struggle to make the switch.

Ultimately, the building blocks of a successful T20 side are quite simple. You need to be extremely athletic and agile in the field, bowl a heavy ball with change-ups, use spin variations, and wield the long handle as well as you run the quick singles and twos. More than a decade after their unexpected victory at the World Twenty20 transformed the sport in India, India are finally getting with the program.
First Published: June 28, 2018, 11:50 AM IST

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