T20 World Cup: Seven pairs in 10 matches by India openers indicates muddled thinking

  • Constant shuffling of India’s opening pair has hurt them as the numbers, and the result in the defeats against Pakistan and New Zealand in the T20 World Cup, show.
India's KL Rahul, right, celebrates with Rohit Sharma after hitting a boundary during the Cricket Twenty20 World Cup match between New Zealand and India in Dubai, UAE, Sunday.(AP)
India's KL Rahul, right, celebrates with Rohit Sharma after hitting a boundary during the Cricket Twenty20 World Cup match between New Zealand and India in Dubai, UAE, Sunday.(AP)
Published on Nov 01, 2021 07:51 PM IST
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By, New Delhi

India’s second successive group defeat in the T20 World Cup on Sunday means their chance of reaching a third consecutive semi-final is practically over. There are multiple theories about the listless campaign—bubble fatigue, physical exhaustion, too many days to brood over the first loss to Pakistan, being outplayed by superior teams, etc. Sneaking under the radar though is the perennial instability at the top of the order that has culminated in the failure of the opening pair in both matches.

It is a reminder of the lead-up to the 2019 50-over World Cup in England. Then, the No 4 position and the omission of Ambati Rayudu—then India's most successful batter in that position—raised a lot of questions for skipper Virat Kohli and India's think tank.

In a different format, in a different batting position, the muddled thinking is on show again. India opened with Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul against Pakistan, while against the Kiwis, Ishan Kishan opened with Rahul. Now, cast your minds back to Kohli’s press conference after the 10-wicket loss to Pakistan.

"You tell me, will you drop Rohit Sharma?" he said in disbelief, burying his head in his hands and asking the reporter—said to be a Pakistani scribe who asked if the opener should be dropped after his dismissal for a duck—if he was looking for a controversy. In the end, Kohli did drop Sharma to No. 3 and replaced him with Kishan, though Suryakumar Yadav’s back spasms was given as the reason. Consequently, two of India's best white-ball players—Sharma and Kohli—batted out of their positions in a must-win game. Changing the batting order is indeed the captain's prerogative, but in hindsight it can perhaps be deduced that Kohli was being reactive in his decision making.

Kohli's opening plan

Now, in March, after opening the batting with Sharma and leading India to 224/2 in the fifth T20I against England, Kohli had expressed his desire to open regularly. “Look, I’ve batted at different positions in the past, but I feel like we do have a very solid middle order now, it’s about your two best players getting the maximum number of balls in T20 cricket. So, I would definitely like to partner Rohit at the top,” he had said.

He did open for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the India leg of IPL, but before the practice game against England, announced Sharma and Rahul as the designated pair. “Things were different before IPL, now it's difficult to look beyond Rahul at the top of the order. Rohit is a no-brainer. World-class player, he’s been solid up front. I will be batting at three. That’s the only news I can give to start off,” Kohli said.

That changed on Sunday, and considering the rate at which India alter their opening combinations, it was par for the course. Consider this: Since the start of 2021, India have played 10 T20Is and fielded seven different opening pairs—Sharma-Rahul (thrice), Shikhar Dhawan-Ruturaj Gaikwad (twice), and Sharma-Kohli, Dhawan-Prithvi Shaw, Dhawan-Rahul, Sharma-Ishan and Rahul-Ishan (all once each). It makes it seven different batters in the opening role across 10 months and 10 T20Is.

Now, take world No. 1 England and No. 2 Pakistan. In Jason Roy and Jos Buttler, and Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam, these teams have regular opening pairs that have stood them in good stead through the year. Sure, there have been the odd experiments—forced or otherwise—but the world's top two T20 teams have largely stuck to their guns.

England, Pakistan template

In the 14 T20Is they have played this year (before Monday's match against Sri Lanka), England have tried just four opening combinations with Roy and Buttler starting on 11 out of 14 times. Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow have also been tried, but mostly when Buttler or Roy were not playing.

Pakistan, not always associated with consistency, have been steady in choosing their opening combine. In 20 T20Is they have played this year (till Nov 1), they have tried just three pairs. Rizwan-Babar feature 13 times, followed by Rizwan-Sharjeel Khan (thrice) and Rizwan-Haider Ali (once). Their success, specifically Rizwan's in the T20 World Cup, shouldn’t thus be viewed as an aberration or a lucky streak. Three of Pakistan’s T20Is ended in ‘no result’ without the team batting, which means they effectively played 17 T20Is with Babar-Rizwan opening in 13. Like England, only four players auditioned for the role for Pakistan, underlining an uncluttered mindset.

This consistency has been rewarded. India have won only four of their 10 matches, England 10 of their 14 games and Pakistan 12 times of their 17 completed T20Is. England and Pakistan have lost their first wicket for a duck just once this year. India have lost one of their openers for nought four times in 10 matches. Indian openers have given a double-digit stand just four times this year. England and Pakistan openers have crossed that mark 11 (out of 14) and 13 (out of 17) occasions.

Pakistan have had eight 50-plus opening stands. That includes three century partnerships, by Rizwan and Babar, with each one converted to 150-plus stands. England openers have crossed 50 six times, raising a 100 partnership once. Indian openers have only one 50-run opening stand in 10 tries.

With their rudderless campaign in the UAE likely to end in the league stage—an extraordinary mathematical possibility can put them in the semis—India could revisit their T20 template.


    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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