By Tushar Bhaduri
India’s early ouster from the Asia Cup has put a question mark on the team’s readiness for next month’s T20 World Cup in Australia – with some justification. The defending champions were the most fancied team in the continental event, but back-to-back defeats to Pakistan and Sri Lanka put paid to their title aspirations.
But to put matters in context, the squad that went to the UAE was missing some of its key senior players – especially Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami (Harshal Patel is still not a proven performer at the international level), while the injury to all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja midway through the tournament hurt the balance of the side.
However, looking at the bigger picture, while the Asia Cup is a prestigious tournament in its own right, it is really a platform to prepare and assess one’s strengths and weaknesses going into the World Cup. So, India’s performance in Dubai should be analysed keeping in mind what can be expected to happen Down Under. India has been one of the most consistent and the highest-ranked teams in the format, according to the ICC charts, so one should avoid knee-jerk reactions.
India took a full-strength batting unit to the Asia Cup, with the top order comprising skipper Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, and Virat Kohli making a conscious effort to shed their inhibitions and conservative approach, in line with what other successful teams in the T20 game do. They take the attack to the opposition in the initial overs, but it is seen that once the Powerplay gets over and the field is spread, the scoring rate comes down considerably.
It puts a lot of the onus on Suryakumar Yadav, fast emerging as the key player in India’s line-up and arguably one of the best in the world in the format, on the basis of his versatile shot-making, clear head, and confidence. His recent hundred in a T20I against England – albeit in a losing cause – was some of the best batting one could hope to see in the T20 game.
But with some of the big guns in the bowling department missing at the Asia Cup, scores of 170-180 were never going to be enough batting first. With Rishabh Pant being more miss than hit in the format, and Hardik Pandya not expected to come off in every match – due to the high-risk nature of his role – India often fell short. The likes of Deepak Hooda and Sanju Samson are still serving their apprenticeship at the top level.
Selectors also need to decide whether Dinesh Karthik should play the finisher’s role in the playing XI. He had a stellar IPL and is in a direct contest with Pant.
Jadeja’s probable absence from the showpiece event could arguably be the biggest setback for Team India. Far from being a bits-and-pieces cricketer, the left-hander is now a truly three-dimensional player, capable of making an impact with the bat, ball, and on the field. Axar Patel is his like-for-like replacement but is not at the same level yet.
The bigger boundaries in Australia are likely to bring the spinners into play, and India needs to be clear about the utility of Ravichandran Ashwin. He is a legend in Test cricket but often sat in the dugout during the Asia Cup. Leg-spinners have traditionally done well Down Under, and the selectors may well be tempted to go with both Yuzvendra Chahal and Ravi Bishnoi.
As far as the pace bowling department is concerned, India would fervently hope that Bumrah is fit and somewhere close to his best. He is the leader of the attack and capable of turning a match in the limited opportunities a bowler gets in this format – at whatever stage of a game. The selectors also need to take a call on whether they want to use Shami as a T20 bowler or save him for the longer formats. He played a stellar role in Gujarat Titans’ IPL triumph in their debut year.
In the Asia Cup, Bhuvneshwar Kumar was the most senior bowler, but he is not express pace by any means which could mean he can be lined up if there’s no lateral movement. On the positive side, Pandya’s improvement as a bowler has given the team an added dimension.
With little more than a month to go for the big tournament, most other teams have announced their squads. But it seems the Asia Cup, which was seen as the final opportunity to see what the fringe players have to offer, has left the decision-makers with more questions than answers.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The fickle nature of the format means the ‘favourites’ tag hardly means anything. A match can turn in the space of a few deliveries. India had hardly played any T20 cricket when they won the inaugural ICC World T20 in 2007. Australia were in a wretched run of form before becoming champions last year. If all the pieces of the jigsaw fall in place and there are some special individual performances, anything is possible.