Tired minds, muddled thinking: How India failed at T20 World Cup

Ditching leg-spin, benching Ravichandran Ashwin, changing batting order and persisting with Hardik Pandya; the entire set-up has a lot to answer for after India's exit from the T20 World Cup.

Stubbornness over playing Hardik Pandya, wrong team selection, muddled thinking, tired minds and the Indian cricket’s obsession for World Cups – a lot of factors contributed to India’s failed T20 World Cup campaign. As Virat Kohli’s team bade adieu to a tournament hosted by the BCCI, the entire Indian cricket set-up has a lot to answer for.

Pandya’s case was the team management’s inability to learn from their 2019 World Cup mistake, where they shunned Ambati Rayudu, stuck to Vijay Shankar at No. 4 and ended up playing a callow Rishabh Pant in that position in the semifinal. Pandya’s selection for this World Cup reeked of similar hubris and projecting him like prime Kapil Dev was an error.

For a player who bowled very sporadically this year and didn’t bowl at all in the IPL, even at the nets, picking him for the ICC event denied the team of a sixth bowler. As Pakistan openers, Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan took the frontline Indian bowlers to the cleaners, an extra bowling option was badly missed.

“These things (uncertainty over Pandya’s selection) from a talking or discussion point of view, feel very interesting that if he doesn’t bowl, will he be left out? But we understand the value he brings to the team as a No. 6 batter and in world cricket, if you look around, there are specialists who do that job,” Kohli had said on the eve of India’s tournament opener, falling back on the allrounder’s 22-ball 42 not out against Australia in Sydney last year.

The fact of the matter is that it ignored Pandya’s current batting form, someone who scored 165 runs in 10 T20Is this calendar year and ended up scoring 127 runs from 12 matches in the IPL. The 28-year-old scored 69 runs in three innings at the T20 World Cup, a 13-ball 35 not out, after getting a reprieve on 14, being his highest. Against New Zealand, when he had the opportunity to put the pressure back on the opponents, he got out slogging.

Eventually, under pressure and after rigorous fitness drills at the nets, the team management made sure that Pandya bowled a few overs in matches. He looked pedestrian. In fact, the selectors were far from convinced about his bowling fitness, reflected in Shardul Thakur’s inclusion in the main squad at the expense of Axar Patel. The left-arm spinner, also a capable lower-order batsman, probably wouldn’t have done worse. Also, given that India eventually decided to play three spinners against Scotland, Axar’s presence might have made the team more balanced.

Ditching wrist-spin completely was as inexplicable as it was unexpected. Over the last four years, the team management mother-henned that variety, only to ignore it at the showpiece event. Yuzvendra Chahal’s exclusion was debatable, especially after his 18 wickets in the IPL, proving his effectiveness on UAE pitches in the process. But like chief selector Chetan Sharma, the skipper also maintained that Rahul Chahar was preferred over Chahal for being quicker through the air.

Ahead of the tournament, this was what Kohli had said: “It was a challenging call (to drop Chahal), but we decided to back Rahul Chahar for a reason. He has bowled amazingly well in the last couple of years in the IPL. (He is) a guy who bowls with pace. He did really well in Sri Lanka recently. And against England at home as well, he was someone who bowled those difficult overs.”

He added: “We believe that heading into this tournament, the wickets are going to get slower and slower and guys who probably bowl with a lot more pace, as you saw in the latter stages of the tournament (IPL) as well, were the ones to trouble the batsmen the most.”

After this, not giving Chahar a game at the World Cup was contradictory. Watching from close quarters, it felt like the team management didn’t have enough confidence in the leggie to play him in big games, even against New Zealand, traditionally the strugglers against leg-spin.

On Sunday, when asked if the team missed Chahal, India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun said: “See, I think that is for the selectors to decide. We can only play with the team that has been given to us. And I wouldn’t like to dwell too much on that.”

Picking Ravichandran Ashwin and not playing him in the first two games was a mistake as well. When the master off-spin played against Afghanistan, he showed that at the international level, quality would always trump mystery.

Moving on to opening with Ishan Kishan, it has a backstory. Back in March, after opening with Rohit Sharma in a home T20I against England and putting on 94 runs for the first-wicket to help India post 224/2, Kohli had spoken about opening the innings at the T20 World Cup as well. “I’m going to open in IPL as well. I have batted in different positions in the past. But I feel we have a solid middle-order now. So, I will definitely like to partner Rohit at the top going into the T20 World Cup.”

Then, before the tournament, the India captain changed his stance and decided on KL Rahul partnering Rohit at the top. “Things were different before IPL, now it’s difficult to look beyond KL Rahul (626 runs in the IPL) at the top of the order. Rohit is a no-brainer. World-class player, he’s been solid upfront. I will be batting at No. 3.”

However, with Suryakumar Yadav ruled out against New Zealand due to back spasms, Ishan was sent ahead of Rohit to open with Rahul. It completely undid the batting order, a move that was ostensibly made to shield Rohit from left-arm pacer Trent Boult. Going into that game, Rohit carried a record of getting out to left-arm quicks 14 times in the shortest format and the golden duck against Shaheen Shah Afridi was a fresh scar. Later, India’s batting coach Vikram Rathour called the move “tactical”, although during an interview with this paper, former Pakistan opener and their ex-National Cricket Academy director Mudassar Nazar lambasted the Indian team management for getting it wrong.

“Changing the batting order was uncalled for. It meant that Virat had to bat at No. 4. Who in his right mind would send a player of his calibre at No. 4! He should be always batting at No. 3 if not opening the innings. He came in (against New Zealand) at a time when India had started to struggle. He got bogged down because he was in two minds, whether to play his shots or to take the game deep. And under pressure, he slogged and got out,” Nazar said.

Rohit also admitted the mistake after the Afghanistan game. “Decision-making sometimes can be a problem, and that is exactly what happened in the first two games.”

This team has been on the road for the last six months and the bubble life is not easy. Like Arun said, a break between the IPL and the T20 World Cup would have been better.

READ | New Zealand dismantle Afghanistan to book semi-final berth

“Again, definitely being on the road for six months is a huge ask. I think the players haven’t gone home ever since they had a short break after the last IPL and they are in a bubble for the last six months. And I think that takes a huge toll. Maybe, a short break between the IPL and the World Cup would have done a lot of good for these boys.”

The BCCI didn’t have another window to complete the IPL this year. Once the first phase had to be postponed due to Covid, the gap between the England series and the T20 World Cup was the only option. And the IPL is about Rs 4,000 crore worth of revenue, so the Indian board couldn’t have shunned it. From broadcast commitments to other sponsors, legal issues would have been involved. But the players had the option to pull out of the second phase of the IPL, recharge their batteries and return fresh for the World Cup. England’s Jos Buttler did that to a fantastic effect.

From the BCCI’s perspective, appointing MS Dhoni as team mentor, citing his title-winning credentials, was outright undermining of the authority of the captain and head coach Ravi Shastri; a combination that has made India the world’s best Test team over the past four-odd years, winning back-to-back series in Australia and leading 2-1 in England. This team has also won series in white-ball cricket in all countries. As was evident during India’s practice sessions, Dhoni was a very hands-on mentor, giving throwdowns, discussing finer points with the players. It’s debatable, but apparently his presence made Shastri’s role peripheral.

Indian cricket has an obsession for World Cups, although what this team achieved in Tests would supersede any ICC titles. Confirmation regarding this from a team insider came via a text message even before the tournament: “damn right”.

India will have a new T20I captain after this World Cup and a new coaching team. But should they follow England’s lead and pick different teams for different formats? Arun concurred. “There’s enough talent in our country so we can afford to field different teams for different formats.”

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