February 23, 2016

Chinks in India's T20 batting, not bowling

For a change, it is the bowling line-up that gives cause for optimism

Ashish Nehra bowls with a plan for every batsman © Associated Press

Five ICC World T20 championships have given us five different winners. This tells you something about the T20 format, and also about the tournament.

A No. 11 batsman throws his bat at two good balls: one takes the inside edge and goes to fine leg for four, and the other over the keeper for four, and the game is won or lost for a team. Such is the nature of T20 cricket.

A relatively long T20 tournament, though, gives you a fair idea about how good a team really is. The World T20 will tell you which team played the best cricket over the course of six matches.

India have won five of their last six T20 games now and are in good rhythm. Most importantly, MS Dhoni's self-confidence as captain ought to be a lot stronger now than a few months ago.

Some may argue about the credibility of the recent wins against an Australian side that experimented with players every game, and a Sri Lankan team sans its stalwarts, but there are a few things to like about this Indian T20 team, and they are mostly to do with their bowling.

Jasprit Bumrah may have an unorthodox bowling action overall but his wrist action is technically sound and effective © BCCI

The usual suspects, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav haven't figured in this latest run of wins, which is good sign. Once Bhuvneshwar gave up on swinging the ball, he, like Ishant, has been completely at the mercy of the batsmen, rarely inducing mistakes.

Ashish Nehra's selection has been among India's smartest in recent times. In fact, the way he has bowled so far on this latest comeback has enlightened us about the inadequacies of Umesh as a limited-overs seam bowler. When Nehra runs in to bowl, you can sense that there is a plan in his mind about where specifically to bowl to a particular batsman. By contrast, the likes of Umesh seem to just run in. This is making a huge difference. Nehra, thanks to his cricket smarts from an earlier era, is able to get the wickets of batsmen early before they do permanent damage to India's cause. It's nice to see a bowler from an earlier generation perform among players much younger than him.

In Jasprit Bumrah, India finally have a bowler who can deliver yorkers at will, and at pace too. I thought Mohammed Shami was going to be this bowler for India when I saw him the first time.

Bumrah's yorkers have a nice little dip in trajectory as the ball gets close to the batsman, making them even more difficult to get under. Now those are really good yorkers.

Because he is generally bowling yorkers when under pressure, Bumrah gets you wickets: batsmen miss, he hits. I know it's 2016, but the good old yorker is still a very handy ball to have in limited-overs cricket, as Yuvraj Singh confirmed to me recently during a chat.

Yuvraj Singh now seems less confident of his ability to deal with high-pressure run-scoring situations © Associated Press

Bumrah's unorthodox bowling action is an obvious "value add" when batsmen are trying to hit boundaries in a T20, but the most impressive thing about his bowling is his wrist action.

Dominic Cork spoke to me recently in Dhaka about how the great Malcolm Marshall had deduced that the wrist action, more than anything else, defines a great bowler - not so much the front arm and all the rest of it, but the way the wrist works when it is releasing the ball decides the quality of bowling. While all the other aspects of his bowling are clearly from outside the textbook, Bumrah is blessed to have this critical element of his bowling right.

With R Ashwin already in the side, along with Nehra and Bumrah now, India finally have a wicket-taking attack, and this makes their team for the tournament a good T20 outfit.

I have two concerns, though, and they are Dhoni and Yuvraj as batsmen. They bat at the crucial Nos. 5-7 positions, tough spots in the batting order, where they will walk in with a game delicately poised, and a couple of balls here and there will decide the fate of the match.

Neither of these men is in the prime of his batting career, and they bat in positions where you need batsmen with extreme self-confidence and ability to walk in and take tough challenges head on.

MS Dhoni always backs himself but these days he doesn't seem to have a response for deliveries full and wide outside off stump © Getty Images

Yuvraj nearly lost the game in such a situation in Sydney last month, in the final T20, when he managed to get only five runs off nine balls, before Andrew Tye, playing in only his second T20I, bowled two length seam-up deliveries on the pads, setting him free.

Comebacks are not easy, and the Yuvraj Singh of today looks to me a cricketer with some self-doubts; he seems nervous on the field whether he is batting, bowling or fielding. In this state of mind, a batsman's anxiety at the start of a T20 innings is heightened. A couple of dot balls and his self-confidence is in a state of free fall. The arms go weak, he realises his great asset, power, has suddenly deserted him, and now there is only panic to deal with. It's a horrible state of mind for a batsman to be in, and I suspect Yuvraj is currently gripped by that sort of vulnerability.

As for Dhoni, his issue is more technical, and I think the time has come for him to add an important shot to his attacking game - a push or a drive towards extra cover or point. Not to fetch a boundary but to prevent dot balls when the delivery is wide outside the off stump and full.

This is where all bowlers bowl to him these days, and Dhoni still seems intent on playing the 2011 World Cup-winning lofted shot to such deliveries.

The interesting thing with Dhoni is that, because he has experienced slow starts so many times in his career, he does not let the dot balls get the better of him. He has faith in his ability to make up later. But the Dhoni of today is unable to pull it off as often as he used to, and that worries me.

So when I look at this Indian World T20 team, I see some chinks in the batting, not in the bowling. This is highly unusual for Indian cricket, and pleasing in a way.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

Comments