Raina and Yuvraj testing the faith
Bangalore, March 23. Suresh Raina is batting on 3 off 6 balls when Mashrafe Mortaza bowls him a short ball. Raina is slow to react, and the ball is almost at his front shoulder when his bat comes around to meet it. The shot is less a short-arm pull than a short-arm flap. He doesn't middle it, and the Chinnaswamy Stadium holds its breath when the ball hangs in the air, but it falls well short of deep square leg.
It is a Raina thing, this short-arm flap. It is a sight that induces nervousness in his fans and smugness in his critics.
Raina is batting on 6 off 10 balls when the short-arm flap makes another appearance. This time the ball strikes his bat a little closer to its sweet spot, and carries as far as the fielder on the deep square leg boundary, but Shuvagata Hom has to run to his right, and is only a foot or so from the boundary when his hands parry the ball over the rope.
There are short balls that rise steeply and there are short balls that sit up. Al-Amin Hossain's next ball is of the latter kind, and Raina clears his front leg and muscles the ball over the wide long-on boundary. He is batting on 18 off 12 balls now, his strike rate is 150.
This is Raina's T20 game. On his good days he times the ball beautifully and scores quickly. On his bad days, if he's in for any length of time, he looks ugly, hits a couple of big shots, and scores quickly. Or he gets out early. Rarely does Raina score 15 off 20 balls or 20 off 25. He is a frustrating cricketer, but he is made for T20. In this match, against Bangladesh, he top-scores with 30 off 23.
Raina's scores at the World T20 are 1 off 2, 0 off 1, 30 off 23, and 10 off 7. In the last innings, against Australia, he is out gloving a pull to the keeper.
In the same match, in Mohali, Yuvraj Singh scores 21 off 18 balls. His strike rate is 116.66, which is nothing like his career strike rate of 136.95, but better than his strike rate since the start of 2014, which is 101.91. Facing the third ball of his innings, Yuvraj jumps onto the back foot to tuck Nathan Coulter-Nile off his hips. He jumps back, lands awkwardly, and twists his left foot. He hobbles through the rest of the innings, an innings rich in human drama.
A lot of Yuvraj's recent innings have been like that, battles pitting his experience and know-how against reflexes that are clearly half a step slower than they used to be. He gets beaten for pace frequently, but bowl him something in his slot and he'll still send it soaring over the ropes. It has been fascinating to watch. But from a purely cricketing perspective, it's hard to say if he's still an effective enough middle-order batsman for a top international T20 side.
India have kept their faith in Yuvraj. They have kept their faith in Raina. Neither has rewarded that faith, just yet. Meanwhile, at the top of the order, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan have a top score of 23 between them at this World T20.
Between them, Rohit, Dhawan, Raina and Yuvraj have scored 181 runs at an average of 11.31 and a strike rate of 103.87. Those four names occupy numbers one, two, four and five in India's batting order. India are in the semi-finals largely because their No. 3 has scored more runs than those four put together. Virat Kohli has made 184 runs at an average of 92.00 and a strike rate of 132.37.
After their No. 3 has dragged India into the semi-finals with one of the greatest T20 innings of them all, MS Dhoni calls on the other batsmen to step up. He says he feels India are "batting at 65% barring Virat."
That 65% includes the contribution of Dhoni, who has scored 74 runs off 61 balls while only being dismissed once in four innings. Without that, he might have said 30%.
Mumbai, March 29. Manish Pandey shadowing his front-foot pulls. Ajinkya Rahane is on the ground next to him, stretching one leg in front of him and bending low at the waist to touch his toes. It is a sapping afternoon at the Brabourne Stadium, and Rahane has experienced plenty of them. He was 14 when he first played a serious match here, in October 2002, scoring 5 and 13 not out for Mumbai Under-15s against Baroda Under-15s.
The ground has practice pitches near both square boundaries. On one side is the West Indies squad. On the other are Rahane, Pandey, India's batting coach Sanjay Bangar, their throwdown specialist DGVI Raghavindraa, and a group of net bowlers. India's training session is optional.
Right through the World T20, Rahane has been the one constant presence in these optional sessions. In Kolkata, two days before the match against Pakistan, only Rahane, Raina and Pawan Negi showed up. In Bangalore, two days the Bangladesh game, it was Rahane and no one else.
Now, two days ahead of a semi-final against West Indies, Rahane has company.
January 23 was the last time Pandey batted in any form of serious cricket. He scored an unbeaten 104 off 81 balls and steered India home in an ODI chase of 331. India have played 15 T20Is since then, and Pandey hasn't played any of them. He isn't part of their World T20 squad - yet. He's here now on standby, waiting for news of Yuvraj's injured foot. He's at the Brabourne Stadium, which is down the road from the Wankhede Stadium, which is the venue of the semi-final.
Pandey and Rahane are batting at adjacent nets. Pandey steps down the pitch and lofts a net bowler over long-off. Rahane leans back to a short, rising ball and ramps it over the netting behind him. He does it two more times in the next five minutes; he seems to have instructed Bangar and Raghavindraa to feed him throwdowns for that specific shot.
It is a shot for pitches with a bit of pace and bounce in them, where the ball comes onto the bat. Like the pitch at the Wankhede Stadium.
In the 2011 World Cup final at the Wankhede, Mahela Jayawardene scored an unbeaten 103 off 88 balls. Forty of those runs, and eight of his 13 fours, came behind square on the off side, a testament to how well the ball came on to his bat and how well he used the pace. The ramp towards third man featured extensively.
Rahane is practising that shot. In case he is needed.
Dhoni has stressed, on numerous occasions, that Rahane can only come into India's side as an opener, or as one of the top three. If Yuvraj isn't fit to play the semi-final, it is probably Pandey who will take his place. Or Negi, who offers a vaguely like-for-like option as a left-hand bat who bowls left-arm spin. Not Rahane.
If Rahane is a solution, he is a solution to a different problem. He can only come into the side if India leave out Dhawan.
Dhawan has had a poor World T20, but made 60 in his last T20I before the tournament, a Man-of-the-Match performance in the Asia Cup final, and followed it up with an unbeaten 73 in India's warm-up match against South Africa.
Since then, he has made 1, 6, 23 and 13. He hasn't looked out of touch, and has timed the ball brilliantly at times.
He has often gone through spells like this, and come out of them with a big innings at an important time. India will hope that can happen at the Wankhede. Or, if they get there, at Eden Gardens.
India have somehow reached the semi-finals of a major event with four of their top five misfiring at the same time. They have got there by playing the same eleven, by backing a group of players that they believe in, though clearly not because of it.
Come semi-final time, do you continue backing them?
It's a hard call to make. One change could be forced on them, if Yuvraj is ruled out, but it is possibly too late for purely tactical tinkering. It will take a tectonic shift in the thinking of India's team management to leave out Dhawan or Raina in a knockout game and bring in someone with barely any recent match practice. A counter-argument would be: having recognised that the batsmen apart from Kohli have only performed at 65%, is it not dangerous to play the same combination in a knockout game? Why have a squad of 15 in that case?
Neither point of view is right or wrong, and on Thursday, India will make a decision and live or die by it. One way or another, it is utterly improbable that they will win this tournament under their current circumstances, with only one of their top five scoring runs.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo