Modern white ball cricket is all about batsmen taking risks. It is high time India unleashed its talented young batsmen for World Cup success
The current South Africa tour is vital for India to nail down their selection for the T20 World Cup in June. Last month’s 4-1 drubbing of Australia in a T20 series right after losing to them in the ODI World Cup final started the selection trials, so to speak. The Suryakumar Yadav-led T20 side then drew 1-1 in South Africa, with an impressive 106-run victory in the final match.
India have not won a T20 World Cup since the inaugural one in 2007, or an ODI World Cup since 2011. That’s in spite of having the world’s richest cricket league and an abundance of talent. The 2024 T20 World Cup in the West Indies and USA will likely be the last chance for coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma to rectify that.
Two lessons are already apparent from stumbling at the last hurdle of the 2023 ODI World Cup and in the semi-finals of the 2022 T20 World Cup. The first is that a conservative approach in the middle overs rarely pays off, especially while setting a target.
Virat Kohli and K.L. Rahul consumed 18 overs in their 67-run partnership between the 11th and 29th overs of the ODI World Cup final on 19 November. A strike rate below 4 runs an over for such a prolonged period, with part-time spinners Travis Head and Glenn Maxwell operating, was ultra-conservative. India just froze after losing three wickets.
Similarly, Kohli’s 50 in 40 balls at a below-par strike rate of 125, had resulted in a sub-optimal score of 168, in the T20 World Cup semi-final on 10 November 2022. England knocked that off with four overs to spare, without losing a single wicket on a belter of a wicket in Adelaide.
Contrast that with the approach of Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav, and Rinku Singh in the T20 series against Australia and South Africa. They eschewed self-preservation to keep up a winning strike rate in the middle overs. In the fourth match of the series against Australia on 1 December, for instance, Rinku Singh and Jitesh Sharma had strike rates of 159 and 184 respectively, after India lost three wickets in the first 8 overs, on a slow, challenging Raipur wicket.
“The guys I’m watching right now in the T20s are fearless. Their attitude remains the same whether they get runs or not on any given day. They don’t have a fear of failure,” said Suryakumar Yadav, who was India’s captain for the Australia and South Africa T20 series.
He led by example in the final game of the T20 series in South Africa on 14 December, smashing a 56-ball century. Yadav, along with opener Yashasvi Jaiswal, never let up, even after two wickets fell in the third over.
If India’s selectors and coach take that on board, Kohli’s approach and his place in the T20 World Cup squad will be up for debate. Ishan Kishan and Jaiswal lead the pack of strong, young contenders for the No. 3 spot, with their attacking mindset. There’s also the option to let one of the left-handers partner Rohit Sharma in opening the innings, moving Shubman Gill to No. 3.
India’s string of six right-handed batsmen in the ODI World Cup was a handicap that was just waiting to get exposed, and that finally happened in the final. So the second lesson is that a left-right combination is not to be underrated.
Spinners, especially, find it harder to settle into a line and length in the middle overs. Kishan demonstrated this on 23 November in Visakhapatnam, by taking down Aussie leg-spinner Tanveer Sangha, in a 112-run partnership in just 10 overs with Suryakumar Yadav.
India had as many as six left-handed batsmen in the South Africa T20 series squad, including three specialists and three all-rounders. It’s a pity that Jaiswal was not picked for the ODI side. It was an opportunity to continue grooming the talented youngster for the T20 World Cup squad.
While Kishan and Jaiswal have been on a run-scoring spree in the top order, Rinku Singh is the toast of the season lower down. Carrying on from breathtaking finishes for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in IPL 2023, the left-hander is proving to be a resilient batsman as well, adapting to the game situation with aplomb.
An example of Rinku’s growing maturity was his unbeaten 68 in 39 balls at a strike rate of 174, in the second T20 game against South Africa on 12 December. He walked out to bat at 55/3 and took the team to a respectable 180. The stocky left-hander’s powerful hitting and versatility reminded a South African commentator of Rishabh Pant, who has been convalescing since his car crash last December.
Pant is another left-hander who will be the cynosure of all eyes in the coming IPL, starting in March, as he’s expected to be fully fit by then. Like Rinku Singh, he’s exactly the sort of fearless batsman that the Indian middle order needs.
It may be a tall order for Pant to make an immediate comeback to the T20 side after reconstruction of three torn ligaments in his right knee. But the return of Jasprit Bumrah after a year-long rehabilitation from back injury, to be the spearhead of the bowling attack in the ODI World Cup holds out hope of a second miracle.
Match-winners like Pant and Bumrah are rare, but even they’re not indispensable. With the talent the IPL unearths each year, India can put up two or three world beating sides.
But when resources are plentiful, how they’re used becomes more challenging, because of the sheer number of choices. That makes the roles of the chief selector and coach paramount in finding a winning 11.
Apart from Kohli, two other batsmen from the ODI World Cup squad who can’t take their places for granted are Rahul and Shreyas Iyer. Rahul is a stroke-maker par excellence, but his all-too-frequent switch to a self-preservation mode, has let down both his IPL franchise and the Indian team at crucial junctures. The 107 balls he consumed in the World Cup final—over one-third of the team’s quota—to score 66 runs, at a snail’s strike rate of 62, was a major contributing factor in India’s ultimate loss.
Shreyas Iyer is another player who notches up high averages, but appears vulnerable in big games. He looks a million dollars until a bowler with genuine pace starts targeting his body. Even the thought of being a target can prove his undoing, as it did in the World Cup final, when he poked tentatively outside off-stump to Pat Cummins without moving across.
The main question is whether Dravid made the right call by opting to include both Iyer and Rahul in the playing 11 of the World Cup, instead of finding a place for the left-handed pocket dynamo, Ishan Kishan. An even bolder decision before the World Cup would have been to include Jaiswal, who had a stunning IPL 2023.
IPL 2024 will again be an opportunity for players to make their case for inclusion in the T20 World Cup squad, and the ability to bat without fear will be key. But it remains to be seen if the selectors and coach will be equally fearless.
Strike rates, taken in conjunction with the opposition and game situation, are what matter the most in today’s white ball cricket. Instead, batting averages, personal milestones, and an iconic status still take precedence far too often in India. The World Cup will remain a holy grail until that mindset changes.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.