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Posers for India: The same old top three? Pant or Karthik, or both?

India have adopted a refreshingly positive approach in T20Is of late, but a few wrinkles still remain to be ironed out

India's approach in T20Is has changed, even if the personnel is largely the same  •  BCCI

India's approach in T20Is has changed, even if the personnel is largely the same  •  BCCI

Pakistan, Dubai. Just under a year ago, this combination of opponent and venue tripped India up at the men's T20 World Cup. That defeat began India's slide towards an early exit from the tournament, and left them needing to rethink their approach to T20Is.
On Sunday, an India side managed by a different coaching group and led by a different captain will meet Pakistan once again in Dubai. The team won't be too different to the one that featured in last year's meeting, but it's been playing a different style of T20 over the last few months.
Consider their phase-wise scoring rates. Considering only matches in which they have batted first - and haven't had a target dictating their approach - it's amply clear that India have been scoring significantly quicker in every phase than they used to.
So far, the new approach has had a significant impact on India's results. They were an excellent chasing side even during the Ravi Shastri-Virat Kohli regime, winning seven out of eight matches while batting second from the start of 2020 until the end of the 2021 World Cup, and their win-loss ratio while chasing has remained exactly the same in the period since.
While batting first, however, India's results were distinctly mixed in the earlier period, with 15 matches bringing seven wins, six losses and two ties. So far in the Rahul Dravid-Rohit Sharma era, India have achieved far better results while batting first, winning 12 and losing just three games .
Kohli, for his part, showed during the two T20Is he played in England in July that he was willing to buy into India's new approach, stepping out to fast bowlers and going for his shots right from the start. He didn't score too many runs, though, so he still needs to show he can bat in this new way and justify being selected over a multi-skilled player like Deepak Hooda or either of the wicketkeeper options in Rishabh Pant and Dinesh Karthik.
Rahul, meanwhile, is the designated vice-captain in India's Asia Cup squad, and on that basis should be an automatic selection, but he might come under a bit of pressure to perform too. During his absence from the side, India have opened with either Pant or Suryakumar Yadav alongside Rohit, and having either at the top of the order gives India a certain amount of tactical dynamism. Pant's left-handedness and Suryakumar's range of shots against spin could both dissuade oppositions from bowling restrictive left-arm spinners in the powerplay, for instance - Imad Wasim and Mitchell Santner played key roles in India's defeats in their first two matches of the 2021 World Cup.
It will, therefore, be interesting to see if Rahul can adapt his game - or even just be prepared to unleash his wide range of shots earlier than he typically does - and keep himself at the front of the openers' queue.
Pant or Karthik? Or both?
If Rohit, Rahul and Kohli occupy the top three spots, and if Suryakumar, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja are automatic picks in the middle order, it leaves just one more batting slot open.
Against South Africa earlier this year, in his first series since his recall to the India side on the basis of a sensational IPL season, Karthik showed why he's among the best T20 finishers going around, scoring 71 runs in 36 balls in the death overs (17-20), while only being dismissed twice.
His form has fallen away a little since then, though, and along the way India have also had to work around the hyper-specialised nature of his skills. While Karthik can be incredibly destructive in the last four or five overs, and against pace, he's less assured while batting in the middle overs and against spin. To ensure that he bats in his preferred role, India have often promoted Jadeja - or Axar Patel - above Karthik when they have lost their fourth wicket earlier than ideal, but it's an imperfect solution.
Jadeja, who is likely to be India's first-choice spin-bowling allrounder at the World Cup, has had the same issue as Karthik in recent years. In the last three IPL seasons, he has been excellent against pace - 495 runs at an average of 45.00 and a strike rate of 175.53 - while struggling against spin - 80 runs at 26.66 and 74.76. His international record since the start of 2020 is similar: a strike rate of 160.00 against pace and 96.42 against spin.
As a result, it's possible that Karthik might end up slipping out of India's first-choice XI if there isn't room in it for both him and Pant. This is especially so since Pant, after an indifferent series against South Africa, has found form in T20Is, particularly during the recent tour of the West Indies. Apart from his left-handedness - something India have in limited supply otherwise - he's also more versatile than Karthik in being able to open or bat through the middle overs.
All this, of course, is subject to change based on how India line up during the Asia Cup and how their batters perform their respective roles.
Who's the No. 8?
When West Indies and England reached the final of the T20 World Cup in 2016, they seemed to set in place a template for all teams to follow: uninhibited hitting from start to finish, facilitated by genuine batting depth. The final featured a smorgasbord of all-round talent: Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali, Chris Jordan and David Willey on one side; Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell, Daren Sammy and Carlos Brathwaite on the other.
That template, however, hasn't been an easy one for other teams to emulate, primarily because quality allrounders aren't easy to find or manufacture. For many years, India's tendency towards conservatism with the bat in white-ball cricket stemmed from a lack of bowlers with hitting ability. If India have changed their approach over recent months, they have done so without necessarily finding a failsafe solution to their issue of hitting depth, with Harshal Patel bringing decent but not eye-catching returns (52 runs in eight innings at an average of 10.40 and a strike rate of 130.00) as their most oft-used No. 8 since Dravid took over as coach.
A rib injury has kept Harshal out of the squad for the Asia Cup, which leaves R Ashwin as India's most accomplished No. 8 option. Ashwin has come off his most productive IPL season with the bat, during which he turned Rajasthan Royals' lack of depth into an opportunity to showcase his versatility and improved hitting range, and a pair of recent cameos against West Indies have suggested he could be a decent option in international cricket too. He's not necessarily a hitter in the same way that Jordan or Santner or Romario Shepherd are, but India will have to live with the options they have.
This might mean using Hardik in an anchor-ish role - which he played on multiple occasions during Gujarat Titans' run to the IPL title this year - should they lose a handful of early wickets. But Hardik's recent bowling form could give them another option too, should they wish to try it: leave out a specialist bowler, trust Hardik to bowl his full quota, and bring in Hooda as a batting allrounder, with his offspin allowing them to minimise the use of Jadeja against left-hand batters.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo