Indian cricket has undergone a sea change in the last ten months, in particular after the men in blue team’s dismal campaign in the ICC Men’s Twenty20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. A couple of skilful deliveries from Pakistan’s incisive left-arm seamer Shaheen Shah Afridi in his opening burst — in the first six over power play — put paid to India’s hopes of posting a formidable total on the board. Afridi had the measure of the openers Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul in his first deadly spell. Thereafter a packed house at the Dubai International Stadium saw Pakistan rout India by ten wickets.
It was India’s first outing in the competition after the Virat Kohli-led team had taken a 2-1 lead in the five-Test series against England, but flew to the Arabian Gulf for the IPL, without playing the fifth Test owing to Covid-19 fears.
After the startling one-sided opening match against its Asian rivals, India went down to New Zealand, which ended its chances of advancing to the semi-finals. In a matter of two matches, the ICC Men’s Twenty20 turned out to be a forgettable event for the Indian team and especially for captain Virat Kohli.
The team had hardly recovered from the blows inflicted by Pakistan and New Zealand, for it to immediately, in a matter of three days, to play a white ball series against a New Zealand side that was without Kane Williamson. But such were the ways of bilateral series cricket and India not only played New Zealand in three Twenty20 internationals, but also in two Test matches against them at Kanpur and Mumbai. Thereafter India got itself engaged in a white ball series against the West Indies and Sri Lanka, all crammed in a space of a couple of months. But the outcome of these matches saw the national team return to winning ways.
The first significant change, post the 2021 World Twenty20 debacle was Rohit Sharma being appointed as India captain and Rahul Dravid taking over as head coach of the national team. Sharma had led India on a number of occasions in the shortest format, but Virat Kohli’s decision to quit the national Twenty20 captaincy at the conclusion of the ICC event had virtually thrown open the opportunity for Sharma to fully bring in his ideas for white ball cricket. As events unfolded, Sharma was named captain for the one-day limited overs cricket as well as the multi-day Test cricket.
The early exit from last year’s World Cup was disappointing, but India hit the road running and now go into the Asia Cup, playing 24 Twenty20 internationals (after the last year’s World Cup) and winning nineteen of them. The losses were against South Africa at Delhi and Cuttack, against England at Trent Bridge and the West Indies at Basseterre. A match against South Africa at Bengaluru was washed off.
The focus was obviously on the captaincy of Sharma who led in 16 matches, has won 14 and lost two. The team was also led by Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya, the latter in the three-match series against Ireland in Dublin. The team was at no stage in full strength with Kohli playing only four matches and K.L. Rahul, two, because of a groin-related injury. The workload management of the key players enabled the selectors to throw open opportunities for the fringe players.
In all India has fielded 28 players from the time the leadership roles changed to the combination of Sharma and Dravid and there is no gainsaying the fact that they have given primacy to find the right talent for the challenges in Asia Cup and the World Twenty20.
So the team chosen for the Continental tournament can be construed as one that could be picked for the competition in Australia in October-November. The team is without bowling spearhead Jasprit Bumrah and Harshal Patel because of injuries. These two could be back for the home series against Australia and South Africa.
The Asia Cup will feature five teams, each one of it fancying its chances of a podium finish. The news of India’s chief tormentor at the Dubai International Stadium last October, Shaheen Afridi being ruled out for close to six weeks because of a dodgy knee may have diminished the intensity of the brush between India and Pakistan a bit, but a contest between the Asian arch-rivals, rare as it happens, triggers immense interest in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. And the fans following India and Pakistan may get to see a record three matches between them in a single tournament, should both progress to the final. The Asian Cricket Council has assured the fans two matches; in the preliminary league and in the Super 4 stage.
India’s main batter in the last ten months has been Suryakumar Yadav, scoring 491 runs in 15 matches. Yadav has now established permanency in this format of the game. He is followed by Shreyas Iyer with 479 runs in 17 matches, but he is only a stand-by for the Asia Cup.
Skipper Sharma has been among runs and the likes of Pandya and Deepak Hooda, who boasts of a century in the Twenty20, have been hitting the ball well. Only Kohli and Rahul do not have weighty matches under their belt, but the former captain has said that he is ready to do anything to enable India to win the Asia Cup and the World Cup.
India’s batting looks well balanced with a lineup comprising Sharma, Rahul, Kohli, Yadav, Rishabh Pant followed by the all-rounders Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja. Sharma has options in Dinesh Karthik who has returned to the team with some spectacular showing in the IPL as a finisher and also Hooda.
The Asia Cup will be sort of a litmus test for Sharma and Dravid in a multi-team competition after last year’s Twenty20 World Cup. They have adhered to a process, and would now hope for a good run in two competitions of significant nature.