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Changes will happen and World Cups will come, but first India need to think like a T20 side

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To change their T20I fortunes, India need to alter their top order. But before that, they need to think of Twenty20 cricket in a way the format demands, explains Abhishek Mukherjee.

In 2021, Virat Kohli stepped down as India’s T20I captain, and was sacked as ODI captain soon afterwards.

Sourav Ganguly, then president of the BCCI, explained that “the selectors felt that they cannot have two white-ball captains in two white-ball formats.” In other words, the selectors wanted to bracket the two formats as a single category: white-ball cricket.

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However, the formats are, in essence, very different.

For centuries, a team innings used to end only when a side lost all ten wickets. When teams batted on, the declaration was introduced. When games still meandered along towards meaningless draws, one-day cricket was introduced.

This was a new resource. An innings could now end in when a team ran out of overs. Keeping wickets in hand was not enough anymore: a side now also needed to score quickly.

After a few iterations, limited-overs cricket settled down at 50 overs an innings. If a side had seven people who could bat – five (or six) batters, an all-rounder, the wicketkeeper – they needed to face 43 balls on an average.

Thus, if a batter faced seven overs, the team could bat 50 overs without getting to the tail. Even if they took two overs each to get their eyes in (scoring at, say, three an over), they could manage between 35 and 40 in these seven overs.

That would get a team 260. For years, that used to be a reasonably good ODI score.

In Twenty20 cricket, the balls per batter count is not 43 but 17, so a batter has to take risks much earlier in an innings. More conservative team managements may argue for the relevance of batters who bat deep, whom we refer to as anchors. Like every field of life, one can see the merit of caution.

Let us now turn to the Indian team. They have three anchors, in Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, and Virat Kohli. Since the start of 2020, their strike rates in IPL and T20Is combined – they play little other cricket in that format – read 134, 134, and 128.

For India, they form the top three in the batting line-up. Even if they face 20 balls each, they use up half the team’s innings. If they score at 135, India will reach 81 after 10 overs, a below-par score for a phase this long.

There is little doubt over of Kohli’s greatness in the longer formats (or how he, as captain, revolutionised the Indian Test side); or Rohit’s in ODIs; or about Rahul’s immense potential.

This is also not to question their credentials, but about whether the team requires all three in the same XI when even two seems at least one too many.

In an ODI universe, after Rahul’s early dismissal in the semi-final, Rohit’s 28-ball 27 would have perhaps been praised as a ‘gritty’ performance, Kohli’s 40-ball 50 as ‘holding the innings together’.

Yet, Rohit and Kohli used up 68 balls between them (57 per cent of the team’s resources) to score 77 runs (at 113), delaying India’s eventual onslaught. To protect wickets, India scored slowly, and ended up using up their overs. Rishabh Pant did not get a proper outing, while neither R Ashwin nor Axar Patel faced a ball.

To change into a strong, indomitable Twenty20 outfit, India need to acknowledge that a total of 168 is seldom going to be adequate against a long line-up of hitters.

Only then will there be urgency of pushing for the big scores, which are almost always dependent on boundaries. And for that, a side needs to hit more boundaries. To keep up with hitting boundaries, a cannot be deterred by a collapse.

To quote Ben Jones and Nathan Leamon from Hitting Against the Spin: How Cricket Really Works, “only six per cent of T20 International matches are won by teams who lose the boundary count by more than two boundaries.”

This is not a format won by singles. Since 120 is a score way, way below par, a single is almost always a win for the bowler. Six singles, or even five singles and a two, are a win, for they contribute fewer than four dot balls and two fours.

Thus, to beat quick-scoring teams consistently, India need to find batters who can find boundaries more frequently. They need not last long, for as we have seen, 17 balls make a ‘par’ innings in terms of duration.

There is room for at most one anchor in a side – and even that may be outdated by the next World Cup. Not two, and certainly not three.

India had shown exceptional judgement in picking Dinesh Karthik after he scored 330 runs in the 2022 IPL at a strike rate of 183. Karthik spent only 11 balls per outing, but India backed him – and regularly used him inside the last four overs.

Perhaps it is time to find batters of similar capacity at the top, batters who can dominate the powerplay from the onset.

In this World Cup, India scored at 6.02 an over inside the powerplay. Only Zimbabwe and the UAE did worse. In contrast, England batted at 8.60. Across six overs, that amounts to a difference of 15 runs.

Of course, other adjustments are due as well, but the top three typically comprise the bulk of any side’s batting innings. Barring all-rounders, they are also Twenty20 cricket’s most ‘impactful’ cricketers, for technically they can affect an entire innings. Bowlers, restricted (unfairly, but that is another topic) to 24-ball roles, cannot match that.

The most important changes, thus, have to take place at the top of the batting order.

Every season of IPL throws up a list of batters who thrive inside the powerplay, but that does not necessarily make them champions of the format in unfamiliar conditions. There is merit in Rahul Dravid’s suggestion of getting Indian cricketers to play Twenty20 around the world. Whether the BCCI will allow that is another story.

Whatever the solution, India are playing catch-up. They have until the 2024 T20 World Cup to do so.

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