The year ahead: Knock it out of the park
India are consistently missing the mark, falling short of establishing themselves as the undisputed overlords of cricket. With the World Cup set to be held here at home, this is the year for batters to step up, innovate, move with the times; do as others are doing and hit a hard reset.
Cricket is at a crossroads of sorts, still realising its scope and reach while reinventing itself. There is now at least one International Cricket Council (ICC) event a year. This means more chances to become world champions; or more opportunities to stumble on the world stage. And India are consistently missing the mark, failing to establish themselves as undisputed overlords.
Early exits in two consecutive men’s T20 World Cups have for now put a lid on India’s ambitions in this format. But there are three major ICC events in 2023: the Women’s T20 World Cup in February, the men’s World Test Championship in June and the men’s ODI World Cup, which India will host in October-November. India have as good a chance as any to win one or all, if the men’s team can get their bats lined up right.
This is the real concern for India, one that needs to be addressed with science, sincerity and urgency: batters are unwilling to move with the times or innovate. India still have an all-format captain; batters still want to suss out conditions, play the new ball with caution, rotate the strike, and preserve wickets for a late assault.
All while England are reinventing the game. Super-recharged by Brendon McCullum as Test coach, Ben Stokes as Test captain, and Jos Buttler as white-ball captain, they have hit a hard reset, scoring at the rate of over five runs per over almost consistently in Tests and threatening to breach the 500-run mark in ODIs.
Through the group phase of the 2022 T20 World Cup, India kept harping on the fact that the par score on Australian pitches in early summer was much less than 200. Till Adelaide hit them out of nowhere with a featherbed in the semi-finals. India trudged to 168/6 but England cantered to the target in 16 overs with all wickets intact. Defeats are rarely this comprehensive.
The challenge for India will be to bounce back from this setback in two very different formats in 2023.
Tests should come as an easier fit because things can still even out over five days. But the one-day transition has already become troublesome; most recently, India spiralled to a shocking 2-1 ODI series loss in Bangladesh in December.
“In the last two years, we had prioritised T20s a lot as there were two World Cups. In the next eight to 10 months, we will be prioritising ODI cricket. It is not easy to juggle three formats,” India head coach Rahul Dravid said after that loss. “I guess from our perspective, it has not been easy to play. We don’t have a full squad. Hopefully, from January, depending on injuries, we will get a full squad to play the home series. We have nine ODIs before IPL (three each against New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Australia) and hopefully, we will get to play a settled squad in those games.”
In the women’s team, meanwhile, there’s an encouraging blend of youth and experience, and the right set of leaders, but the incessant change at the management level has been worrying. On December 6 — barely two months from the T20 World Cup — head coach Ramesh Powar was shunted to the National Cricket Academy, making him the only coach to be sacked twice by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) within four years (the last time was just after the 2018 T20 World Cup).
The recent decision, it has been learned, was taken at the behest of captain Harmanpreet Kaur, who wasn’t happy with Powar’s methods. While it’s crucial to maintain a healthy relationship between coach and captain, the move has already prompted questions about the BCCI’s administration of women’s cricket.
In some good news, the India women’s T20 team, currently ranked fourth, go into this year’s World Cup as title contenders (despite the recent slide in performance where they lost 1-4 to Australia in the Test at home). At multi-team events, India have always been a force to reckon with, with the women’s team ending 2022 as Asia Cup champions and runners-up at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, where they lost to Australia by nine runs.
Given the men’s team’s strong home record, they are favourites to win the four-match Test series against Australia in February and reach the Test Championship final to be held at the Oval in June. Odds are they may win the Test Championship final as the Oval pitch is not expected to be as devious as Southampton was in 2021.
But India doing well in bilateral series should not be the yardstick for World Cup preparations anymore. Under the scanner, especially on the men’s team, should be the batters’ willingness to risk their reputations. Because it’s difficult to break the mould and replace survival instinct with fearlessness, cover drives with switch hits, averages with strike rates.
That is not to say India haven’t tried. In the 10 months after the group-stage exit at the 2021 T20 World Cup, all the men’s team did was chop, change and tweak. What is needed, however, is a serious overhaul. The only visible change in the batting order since the 2021 T20 World Cup is Suryakumar Yadav, who has emerged as the team’s finest white-ball batter. But Yadav is just one piece of the puzzle. If India are aiming to repeat their feat of winning the 2011 World Cup at home, the team will need to wholeheartedly commit to the idea of change, not just flirt with it.