As Rishabh Pant walked out to bat at the Adelaide Oval on Thursday night, the unfairness of his situation couldn’t be ignored. Playing only his second game in this T20 World Cup, a semi-final to boot, 12 balls to go, and India on the brink of a sub-par score.
In his five-years’ plus T20I career, Pant has batted at number six in only three out of 54 innings. The first instance was on his debut – the other two happened this year, first in the Asia Cup, and then in this semi-final. It doesn’t need deeper analysis to say that he isn’t suited for this finisher role. So, why was he entrusted to do this job?
Well, in a random change of heart, the team management chose Pant over Dinesh Karthik in the semi-final. Then, it decided to not make use of Pant’s firepower against England in the middle overs, instead asking him to perform a role assigned for months to someone else. Truth told, that wasn’t really Pant’s job but Karthik’s. After months of experimentation, and pushing through this pointless one-shot strategy, the team management deemed Karthik’s finisher role as futile when it mattered most.
While it is astonishing to think that Yuzvendra Chahal didn’t get a single game in this T20 World Cup, this Karthik saga is more staggering. Atleast from the spin angle, there is an explanation forthcoming. How can anyone explain this Karthik anomaly though? For the past six months, the team management – led by skipper Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid – has professed to an attacking mindset, which is backed up by having someone like Karthik in a finisher role. While many argued against it, the management stuck to its guns in playing a one-role batsman who only faced 10-15 deliveries in a game at most.
So, it was all for nothing? On what grounds then Karthik got a shot at this T20 World Cup? Sending out a public note of thanks to Rohit Sharma in the middle of this tournament seemed like a kid who had wished to visit Disneyland all his life, and was suddenly granted a free, all-expenses paid trip. This defied cricketing logic, or even common sense.
It resulted in India losing a key matchup to England. Yes, the management didn’t want to disturb an existing batting order. But if you are ringing in a strategic change, why do a half-arsed job at it? Pant was crucial to counter the likes of Adil Rashid and Liam Livingstone on a ground with shorter square boundaries. By then time he arrived at the crease, they were off attack, having bowled seven overs for 41 runs. It was game over, there and then.
Mind you, this wasn’t the only key reason for India’s embarrassing exit from this World Cup. No, instead this was an explanation in microcosm of a malaise that had set in long ago, but was not identifiable. Or, maybe nobody wanted to identify it.
The rot set in from the top, wherein KL Rahul was never able to balance attacking and defending in the same innings. No one, not even the coach, could help him break ice between the differentiating demands of his IPL and national duties. While Rahul’s World Cup travails are a stunning lack of self-awareness, Rohit Sharma’s form stuttered throughout as well. Pant, meanwhile, was benched as a back-up opener. How could the captain be left out, though?
You see India’s problems had no identifiable solution, except talking about an attacking mindset that never really came through. India’s top-order scored at 6/over in the powerplay through six innings in this World Cup. The two openers averaged 14.66 in six innings in this tournament – 88 runs off 106 balls faced. What attacking mindset, you might ask?
From 2021 to 2022, nothing much had changed except papering over the cracks. Suryakumar Yadav became the fulcrum of India’s batting, but even he can only do so much in the absence of support from the top-order. Even so, India’s batting line-up from last year’s World Cup remained much the same – Rahul and Rohit opening again, Kohli and the rest following, including the absent-minded DK experiment. Expecting a different result despite similar actions amounts to insanity.
At the other end of the spectrum, it was also sheer madness from Jos Buttler and Alex Hales. That they would attack India in the powerplay was a given, but to score 63-0 when India managed only 38-1? It underlined India’s ineffectiveness with the new ball at the same ground where Litton Das too had made a mockery of this attack last week. By the halfway stage, Buttler-Hales had a 100 on the board. To think they accelerated further from this point underlines the extent of India’s embarrassment on the night.
That Bangladesh game brings forth a vital yet underlying conclusion. It pertains to learning from one’s mistakes. Previously, Ireland had beaten England at the MCG through some powerful hitting in the first 10 overs, and the English responded with their own fiery displays in the powerplays ever since. Remember the game against Sri Lanka? Buttler-Hales had scored 70-0 in the powerplay at Sydney. It was a sign of things to come.
India didn’t learn from its mistakes against Bangladesh though. When Das took apart Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, it was put down to an off day and not to the simple fact that this duo doesn’t possess a plan B. How many such off days does it take to conclude they are no longer good enough in this format?
Further, despite a poor record, India persisted with finger spinners throughout this tournament. Chahal not playing a game was surprising – understatement – considering England used two wrist spinners to strangle India in the semi-final played against short boundaries.
Lying between these two extremes of poor batting and bowling performances, India’s tournament was masked with Virat Kohli’s resurgence and his magical knock against Pakistan, and Suryakumar Yadav’s growing influence. These were but two bright sparks in an otherwise shoddy display. Unless of course, you are counting wins against the Netherlands and Zimbabwe as plus points, or that another semi-final appearance is a goal achieved, that is.
Truth cannot be hidden for long, though, certainly not after such an embarrassment. The current T20 stars (if you can still call them that) are living on pre-existing reputations. The selectors’ thinking is archaic and BCCI must bring in a revamp for the shortest format. IPL may be the richest league, and its gameplay may be awe-inspiring, but India’s T20I aspirations are refusing to gain from it on the world stage.
And, as England showed with much glee, Indian T20I cricket is lagging miles behind.