October 5, 2012

Build India's T20 team around Kohli

They should start looking for young players who will serve them well in the next World Twenty20

When, as the owner of the world's most lucrative league, your team fails to make the semi-final of the World Twenty20 three times in a row, it is not merely time to berate or to ignore. It is time to worry, to analyse and to plan. In that order. Not everyone can be proactive but it would be criminal not to be reactive either.

The one great joy, for me, from this World Twenty20, is that bowlers are back. As the more exploited species, they have had to be inventive, and while the conditions may have had much to do with it, it was the spinners who led the way. We knew about Saeed Ajmal and Sunil Narine, but little Akila Dananjaya emerged, and I was particularly impressed with Pakistan's Raza Hasan, who seemed unfazed when thrown the ball at big moments. Meanwhile Dale Steyn and Lasith Malinga continued to lead their attacks, Steven Finn and Umar Gul continued to look good, and Australia have every reason to be excited by Mitchell Starc.

There isn't an Indian in that list. While you could say that India bowled out the opposition in four games out of five, there wasn't a bowler in their ranks the opposition would secretly fear facing. And when 11 players were on the field, there wasn't one in the dugout the Indian captain would wish was out there with him.

Worse, if the captain looked at scoresheets of matches played in India, he wouldn't find someone there who could legitimately be hopping mad at being left out. I really hope Dhoni didn't take a look at the scores from the Challenger Trophy, a tournament that in any case has no need to exist. In four matches you had 356, 328, 307, 335 and 331 scored. Three individual innings of over 150 were played. You didn't have to be in Rajkot to understand that the bowlers didn't have a lawyer pleading their case in the batsman's tribunal.

Another season has started and the message going out to bowlers is: strap on those pads and see if you have a future. What those scores also make abundantly clear is that batsmen weren't threatened. When you bully bowlers, you kill their self-esteem but you don't become a better batsman. You merely have big numbers against your name.

India played five bowlers in a game and got murdered, and Dhoni probably thought: it doesn't really matter if I am increasing the numbers but not getting a better attack. The point about the rain against Australia was valid, but it cannot mask a greater truth. There were people on that bench the captain wasn't excited about. You always judge a team by the strength of its bench and there wasn't a bowler there who was forcing the captain to pick him. Maybe Harbhajan Singh deserved another game but that's it really.

India's batting should have instilled fear in the opposition. I am not sure it did. Experience wasn't an issue. In fact, apart from Virat Kohli, the entire batting unit is from the pre-IPL era. I wonder if India's cricketers, including the captain, aren't jaded. Sometimes you aren't physically tired, just lacklustre. The desire dulls. You aren't as excited about being on the park. I looked at Kohli and I saw optimism, fire, cockiness, disappointment, pain... everything was on display, and that is not something you can do for the cameras. Kohli was the kid who just wanted to be there. It could be because he was in form, because that is his personality, whatever. And that is why teams must always have enough people who are desperate to make a mark. They must ideally outnumber those anxious to keep their place.

That is why I wonder if it may not be a bad idea to start building a young squad around Kohli. There are so few T20 internationals that you can actually give players a break and let a busy young group of people feel their way and make a statement. The next World Twenty20 isn't for another two years, and at least four or five from this team aren't going to be there. It might be a good time to try out a young lot, players who are hungry, who are different, and who, more than anything else, are livewires in the field. Perhaps players like Naman Ojha, Ashok Menaria, Ambati Rayudu (who isn't the youngest but is hungry) and Stuart Binny. Certainly Ajinkya Rahane. It will also force people to search for bowlers who are different.

The IPL should have thrown up a few by now, but really, apart from R Ashwin and to some extent Ravindra Jadeja, not many have emerged from there. Or maybe there aren't any because the standard of Indian players in the IPL isn't good enough. You need a minimum of 80 Indian players and there aren't that many in India.

Inevitably, therefore, India will become a condition-specific bowling unit, only capable of winning if the pitch is a steadfast friend. There will now be four Test matches on tracks made for India's spinners. You must seek to win at home, but be aware that that is not the only way you can win.

The new selectors have a Test team to pick and that won't be a difficult exercise. But I will be waiting to see a new direction in the team they select for the two T20 games against England. The schedule and the timing are perfect to launch a search for freshness.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here