India’s T20 World Cup squad in focus, but real issue is handling pressure
Failures in the Asia Cup, South Africa Test series and the final England Test this summer all expose the brittle temperament of players.
Several questions have been lobbed at Chetan Sharma and his fellow selectors after they picked the squad for the T20 World Cup.
Should Mohammed Shami, with his marvellous skills and rich experience, not have been included for such an important tournament?
What about Sanju Samson or Ishan Kishan who’ve been part of India’s T20 bandwagon for a while? Would it have been better to take a younger wicket-keeper batter as back up for Rishabh Pant?
And Ravi Ashwin being preferred to promising Ravi Bishnoi? Is that looking ahead or back?
These questions have merit no doubt, but counters to these questions would have equal cricket logic too.
All things considered, the squad has a good mix of young and experienced players, balance and depth in all departments, which are pre-requisites to compete at the highest level.
The standbys feature those who missed out but can step in if some player is injured. His inclusion can also be cleverly contrived if he shows exceptional form in the upcoming matches against South Africa and Australia.
With the top four in the batting order showing good form in the Asia Cup, Jasprit Bumrah and Harshal Patel recovering from injury, Hardik Pandya at the peak of his prowess and Pant as the X factor, the team looks strong.
It would have been even more formidable if Ravindra Jadeja had not got injured during the Asia Cup. However, Axar Patel, who is like-for-like in skillsets, had been pushing Jadeja hard for a place in white-ball cricket and was always in the running for a World Cup spot.
I wouldn’t fret about the players chosen. There are no glaring omissions or additions. Inevitably, some decisions will pay off handsomely and some might flop, but that is intrinsic to team sport.
Remember India’s campaign in the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007? The biggest names then—Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Zaheer Khan—were rested or not keen because of their heavy workload that year, which also included the ODI World Cup.
MS Dhoni was entrusted with his maiden captaincy assignment amid much skepticism. Nobody expected India to win. They did in style and the rest is history.
The worrisome part for me starts here. There have been six more editions of the World Cup, but India have not been able to replicate the 2007 triumph though they have started in all subsequent tournaments as favourites, or joint favourites.
Of course, T20 cricket is hugely unpredictable and topsy-turvy, highlighted by the fact that the seven World Cups played so far have produced six different champions with the mercurial West Indies winning twice.
The hardship quotient for all teams playing this format, therefore, is evident. Over the years, the gap between teams has narrowed so much as to become miniscule, making the competition stiff and daunting.
In the recent Asia Cup, Sri Lanka won the title, leaving favourites India and Pakistan as inglorious also-rans. In the same tournament, Afghanistan beat Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, teams far richer in experience and with bigger talent pools.
What’s pertinent is that India played three matches that ended in last-over finishes, losing two. The one win, against Pakistan in the league stage, became inconsequential in quest for a place in the final when they lost to Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the Super 4.
The recent setback fits into a pattern India’s been tracing in multi-nation tournaments (barring Asia Cups) in the last decade.
The last win came in 2013 in England in the Champions Trophy. Since then, India have been beaten in the semi-finals in the 2015 and 2019 ODI World Cups, beaten in the final of the 2014 T20 World Cup, beaten in the semi-final of the 2016 T20 World Cup, and failed to reach the knock-out stage in the 2021 World Cup.
This also finds resonance in red-ball cricket in the past 12-15 months.
In the inaugural World Championship of Test Cricket, top-ranked India were upstaged by hardy New Zealand in the final. In South Africa, the team lost two Tests from potential winning positions to surrender the series 1-2 to a lower-ranked opponent.
Barely two months back, in the final Test of the series against England which had to be carried forward from last season, India again squandered a strong position to lose narrowly, and had to settle for a squared series.
This recurring problem is not because of shortcomings in talent, rather the inability to handle acute pressure, showing up chinks in temperament and a mindset that still seems brittle, nerves not strong enough.
How to overcome crises and taut situations in a match, which is the staple of the T20 format, is the major challenge confronting India heading into the World Cup. The selectors have done their job. The onus now shifts to the captain, coach and players.
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