A bilateral series doesn’t have the pressure of a World Cup, hence playing New Zealand in three T20 games at home was not the same as taking them on in Dubai in the league tie last month, but it should still offer a fair idea of how two teams measure up to each other.
As it turned out, based on how dominant they were on way to a 3-0 sweep, India’s struggles at the T20 World Cup seemed like they happened in some other era.
While seeking revenge for the chastening eight-wicket defeat in the October 31 clash against NZ, the games played at Jaipur, Ranchi and Kolkata were a platform to understand where India went wrong during the World Cup.
The answers proved witheringly obvious and easy. It zeroed down to some strange selections. The wrong Chahar and the wrong all-rounder were picked. R Ashwin was brought back but not enough trust was shown in him.
For the home series, India kept it simple—players who had done well in the IPL, which concluded just before the World Cup were rewarded with call-ups. Harshal Patel (the IPL’s highest wicket taker), Deepak Chahar (instrumental in Chennai Super Kings title run), Venkatesh Iyer (the find of the season), Yuzvendra Chahal (great season as usual, 18 wickets in 15 games) and Axar Patel (superb economy, and 15 wickets in 12 games) were all picked for the bilateral. They should have been there at the World Cup too. Harshal Patel and Iyer were making their international debuts, and Axar Patel had played just one T20I in four years coming into the series—yet they made all the difference.
Chahal was overlooked for leg-spinner Varun Chakaravarthy and Rahul Chahar. Chakaravarthy was also highly successful in the T20 league but was battling a dodgy knee while Chahar had lost form in the second leg and never regained his confidence. Another doubtful selection was Hardik Pandya, who was struggling with fitness. The all-rounder was left out for this series and was asked to rest. In the T20 World Cup, none of them fired when it was needed.
In 11 months’ time we will have another T20 World Cup, and a clear lesson has been learnt: the selectors can’t take a chance with any player’s selection if there is a slightest of doubt over form or fitness.
Kolkata Knight Riders’ Iyer is being tried out as a back-up for Pandya. The left-hand batman scored 370 runs in 10 innings in the second leg of the IPL, while also showing his usefulness with his medium-pace.
“The plan is to keep Iyer in the mix as much as we can. At the same time, we need to give him a role to bat where he usually doesn’t bat for his franchise. It’s going to be slightly tough for him to bat down the order. We’ve given him a role to bat at No. 5, 6 or 7 and see if he can do the job for us,” said captain Rohit Sharma at the end of the series.
The IPL effect
Against NZ, Harshal Patel and Axar Patel picked four wickets each, Ashwin and Deepak Chahar three each. Chahal was fielded in the final game at Eden Gardens and proved his worth by picking the wicket of the in-form Martin Guptill while Venkatesh Iyer got a 15-ball 20 and bowled three overs for just 12 runs while picking a wicket.
Another difference was how seasoned off-spinner R Ashwin was handled by the two team managements. In UAE, Ashwin was left on the bench for the two big games against Pakistan and New Zealand. With Sharma and Dravid showing full trust in him, he led the spin attack with success in the two games he played at Jaipur and Ranchi.
“The main thing is our bowling was a really big plus. Both at Jaipur and Ranchi, we managed to stop a side like NZ to totals around 160… after the way they started in the powerplays the matches could have gone any way. (It was impressive) The way both Axar and Ashwin bowled,” Sharma said. In Jaipur, India took five wickets for 68 runs in the last eight overs to keep New Zealand down to 164 and repeated the choke in Ranchi where NZ got off to a flyer in the powerplay before being suppressed to just 153.
“I think it’s been a great comeback for Ashwin,” Sharma said. “The way he has bowled in UAE and in the two games here, it shows the quality that he has. When he is there, the captain has the opportunity to take wickets in the middle overs. And we understand how important the middle phases are. You need to take wickets there and apply the pressure, Ashwin provides us that, along with Axar. When they bowl it is never about surviving, it is always about how I can get the batter out, that’s how they think and that’s what they come up with all the time.”
It’s not going to be easy for any coach to match the results under former coach Ravi Shastri, or for that matter for any captain to match the success rate of Virat Kohli, but Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma have started on a good note.
Talking about his and Dravid’s philosophy of leading the team, Sharma said: “We are trying to create a healthy atmosphere, giving the younger players security so that players can go out and play fearlessly.
“In the first meeting that we had, we spoke about this very clearly. Told them that ‘if you’re trying to do something for the team, that act will never get unnoticed; you will be noticed when you raise your hand and try to take pressure on yourself and try to do something for the team’.
“You tell them to take their chances, and if it doesn’t come off, you still back them because we know what they are trying to do for the team.”
An example of their style of leadership was seen in the T20I series, with the faith shown in Iyer, Axar and Harshal.
Harshal, the 30-year-old Haryana all-rounder who spent years in the league and in domestic cricket without much impact, made a heady journey from being an unknown to this season’s wrecker-in-chief in the IPL to the player of the match in his debut for India.
In the build-up for the 2022 T20 World Cup, for the new captain and coach, it will be about keeping things simple, and backing players on their most recent form.