India’s T20 upgrade ready for World Cup audition

Updated on Mar 12, 2021 08:39 AM IST

KL Rahul will open with Rohit Sharma with skipper Virat Kohli promising a more robust approach in the five-match England series.

Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli with teammates R Pant, Y Chahal, Navdeep Saini, B Kumar, during a training session, ahead of T20 cricket series between India and England, at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.(PTI)
Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli with teammates R Pant, Y Chahal, Navdeep Saini, B Kumar, during a training session, ahead of T20 cricket series between India and England, at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.(PTI)
By, Ahmedabad

It is regarded as the grand audition to finalise the Indian squad for the T20 World Cup to be held at home in October-November. Facing a formidable opponent like England in a five-match T20 series starting on Friday, that too at the massive Narendra Modi Stadium here, only adds to its scope.

The bio-bubble requirement is a key reason for the choice of venue, and the stadium that staged the final two India-England Tests will also host the playoffs and final of IPL 2021.

Despite playing host to the glitzy T20 league, India have not had success in the global tournament since winning the 2007 WorldT20. They will look to do much better than the semi-final loss when India last hosted the world event in 2016.

For long, India’s T20I teams have looked like an extension of the ODI side. Strong and star-studded, but traditional in approach; often lacking the brilliance needed to dominate those short phases in a T20 game that separate the winners from the losers.

Seeking X-factor

For example, it is hard to imagine an India XI in limited-overs cricket without Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. Yet, according to CricViz statistics, Kohli has a strike-rate of around 130 since the start of 2020 while Sharma’s percentage of dot balls is 38 (from IPL 2016-2020). The team management will thus have to find ways to balance their conventional methods (start slow and then go big) with players who can make an impact straightaway.

“We have played with a certain kind of pattern in the past. We probably didn’t have a big tournament to work towards it. If you look at the additions we have made in the squad, we have tried to address a few things, guys who can be X-factors with the bat, do things which are the need of the hour in T20 cricket, and these guys have done that regularly in IPL. It will be interesting to see how they go about in the five games. These are the only games we have before the T20 World Cup as a team,” Kohli said in the pre-series media interaction on Thursday.

The squad bears a fresh look with the inclusion of Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan and Rahul Tewatia, all big-hitters who await an India debut. They all gave proof in IPL 2020 of their ability to shift momentum swiftly. Whether they get the chance (there is fitness concern over Tewatia), and whether the management will be audacious, is the question.

“The kind of players we have added to our squad is precisely to give depth... We want to play free cricket and not have any baggage of one guy needing to play long for a big total. We have explosive batsmen in the side now. This time you will see guys a bit more free, bit more expressive,” Kohli said.

Top-heavy

Sharma, Kohli, KL Rahul (IPL 2020 top-scorer – 670 runs), Shikhar Dhawan (second highest – 618 runs), Kishan and Yadav all usually bat in the top three in T20s. Rahul can keep wicket as well as anchor the innings. Kohli said he will be the first choice opening partner for Sharma.

“If Rohit plays then it’s quite simple. KL and Rohit have been consistently playing at the top of the order and those two would start. If Rohit takes rest or KL has a niggle or something like that, Shikhy comes in as the third opener,” he said.

Kishan and Yadav can be slotted in the middle order too if needed. Against spin, Yadav has a 50-plus average and scored at 7.7 runs per over at IPL 2020. That ability can be crucial to accelerate scoring mid-innings. He has a great range of shots too. Yadav though has competition in Shreyas Iyer, making a comeback of sorts after a shoulder injury suffered in Australia. He missed Mumbai’s Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 campaign, but played in the group games of the Vijay Hazare Trophy one-day tournament to prove his fitness.

Kishan, a left-handed wicketkeeper-batsman, is an able backup for Rishabh Pant, who is back in the T20I side after missing out in Australia and is in the form of his career. Kishan has also opened in 60 per cent of his T20 innings and can shift gears quickly. Whether the team management sees him as a strategic option at the top or use him to provide the late flourish remains to be seen.

India will be assured by all-rounder Hardik Pandya, who is back to bowling full-tilt in the nets. Rahul Tewatia (find of IPL 2020 with a tally of 255 runs at a strike rate of 139 and 10 wickets—economy 7.08) may have to wait for his chance.

The Covid-19 bio-bubble restrictions requiring teams to carry a bigger squad though give more players a chance to be in the running for selection.

Bhuvi’s comeback

The bowling unit is less crowded in the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja. The focus will be on Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 31, who is making a comeback having played his last international game in 2019.

“He is shaping up well. He is a smart operator with the ball and brings experience which will be vital for us,” Kohli said. “He is right up there with the new ball, through the middle overs, and in the death as well.”

Once India’s go-to seamer who can get the new ball to swing and deliver accurate yorkers in the death overs, Kumar will have to compete with Deepak Chahar, Navdeep Saini and Shardul Thakur.

The last three have been regular in T20s but Chahar, with an economy of just over 8 in the death overs, looks to be ahead. But for left-arm T Natarajan still nursing a shoulder niggle, he would have been a front-runner. Leggie Yuzvendra Chahal will spearhead the spin attack with in-form Axar Patel and all-rounder Washington Sundar in the squad.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Abhishek Paul works with the Hindustan Times’ sports desk. He has been covering the beat since 2010 across print and digital mediums.

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