India's T20 approach needs a reboot, not a refresh

It is both ironic and galling that they have lagged behind in both the physical and mental aspects of playing T20 cricket

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
Rohit Sharma has attempted to raise the tempo of his game from the get-go, but it hasn't quite worked; KL Rahul has impressed in flashes but not consistently  •  AFP/Getty Images

Rohit Sharma has attempted to raise the tempo of his game from the get-go, but it hasn't quite worked; KL Rahul has impressed in flashes but not consistently  •  AFP/Getty Images

This is the age of breathlessness. No time to pause, reflect, mope, savour, rejoice or repair. You move on. The T20 World Cup already feels distant in the rear-view mirror. No grand homecoming and parade for the champions: like the uber professionals they are, England have gathered their tools and are out to entertain again, and at the time of writing, Jos Buttler, the victorious captain, is out in the middle, trying to raise England from 66 for 4 in the first ODI against Australia. Across the Tasman, India and New Zealand, two other teams that could have been in the final, are about to play another bilateral series.
You could say it's just as well. When life around is a blur, why should sport be any different? You lose one, redemption lies around the bend.
But does it really? Ask the players. Or ask the fans who care. Even in these times of hyper-transience, sporting memories are built around big events, and World Cups matter, though they are more frequent these days. If anything, that makes heartbreaks come around faster, and where is that sort of emotion felt more palpably than in India, where over a billion hearts beat in expectation when a World Cup comes around?
It can be argued that the quality of a team should not be judged on World Cup performances alone, and more so when they are of the T20 variety, where luck and a number of imponderables play bigger roles than in the longer formats. But now that a week has passed since they exited the tournament, the truth about India's campaign is apparent in cold light: they were a flawed team, putting in a series of flawed performances, and they needed a bit of luck to make it to the semi-final.
The match against Pakistan was sealed with a couple of outrageous strokes and a slice of fortune. And who knows how far Litton Das could have gone had the game against Bangladesh not been interrupted by rain? The top order failed against every bowling attack that had teeth, and all their scores of over 170 came against weaker bowling attacks.
The absence of Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja forced a rejig of India's game plan, and their choice of spinners came down to batting ability, which meant benching the attacking option. Their batting line-up became exclusively right-handers once they settled on Dinesh Karthik as the finisher. It now seems quite likely that a few members of that team might have played their last T20s for India, which points not to a team at its peak but one put together for the tournament and to work around compulsions. It was inevitable, irrespective of the outcome in the tournament, that starting afresh would be imperative.
In that sense, this bilateral assignment in New Zealand is more than fulfilling an obligation. It's an opportunity to break free. That India have been playing an outdated form of the T20 game is self-evident and this observation has been articulated on several occasions. Since their failure to make it to the semi-finals in 2021, the team under Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma has made a conscious effort towards making more attacking starts with their batting.
The top order, led by Rohit, has come out swinging more vigorously. We have seen Virat Kohli charge and slog his first few balls and make noticeable attempts to hit spinners over the top. This approach resulted in a dramatic jump in India's powerplay scoring rate in the period between the two World Cups, during which time they went from being laggards on that table to the top of it. This is the game they were expected to carry to the World Cup.
But few had accounted for conditions in the early part of the tournament. Along with the bounce came swing and seam, and add to this the fact that the organisers chose to keep the boundary ropes at the edge of the grounds. That made par scores drop by at least 20 runs, and powerplays became as much about preservation of wickets as about run-scoring. It meant the Indian top order could slip back into familiar territory, and it allowed Kohli, who ended as the top scorer in the tournament, to go back to his organic template: build, rotate strike, and end with a turbo finish.
Still, it was evident that India were routinely falling behind in the powerplays, and often it was Suryakumar Yadav's genius strokeplay that made up for it. India would end the tournament at No. 10 in the powerplay scoring rates (95.85), above only Netherlands and Zimbabwe. And when it mattered, against England in Adelaide, India were doomed by their powerplay performance. England's 170 for no loss looked damning against the Indian bowlers, but the match was lost in the first ten overs, during which India limped to 62.
Because the problem was so apparent, India went about addressing it aggressively in the months leading up to the World Cup. But the question is if that sort of approach can be consistently executed with a set of batters for whom the style goes against their natural impulses. In those 12 months Rohit led the charge with personal example, often sacrificing his wicket with ungainly strokes; that it has been against his grain has been obvious. KL Rahul has remained an enigma, his potential shining through in flashes, but consistency and big-match performances have remained elusive. Back at his best, Kohli demonstrated what he is still capable of, but are India best served by sticking with him at No. 3 irrespective of match situations?
There are other questions that should haunt Indian cricket. Despite 15 years of the IPL, why has India not produced enough specialist T20 cricketers? This is no slight to Dinesh Karthik, but why did a country with so large a player base need to go back to him despite him having a stop-start international career that has spanned 18 years? How is it that there is hardly a top-order batter who can bowl? Or so few fast bowlers who can swing a bat? And why does the bowling attack feel so bereft in the absence of one gun bowler?
That India have been a flawed T20 team is mainly down to what's available. Is it because the leading players in the country have found more comfortable roles with their franchises? There is a surfeit of top-order batters and plenty of spinners who are comfortable in the middle overs. And till recently, locating a death-overs specialist beyond Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar was a struggle.
Suryakumar hasn't become a devastating batter in all positions and against all bowlers only because of his rubbery wrists and quick hands. He has single-mindedly fashioned himself to be so. He hits so many fours and sixes because he has trained his impulses that way. Watch him set up a ball and you will see that a boundary is his first option, and he settles for less only when the boundary option is not executable. He is India's first international-class T20 specialist. And he is the model.
Few sports have developed as rapidly as T20 has done. It might be the youngest form of cricket but it has matured beyond recognition. That it rules the popular imagination and at the cash counters is no longer in question, and the IPL has been instrumental in making it so. It is ironic and galling that India have lagged behind in both the physical and mental aspects of playing T20 cricket. It's not a coincidence that their only win in a T20 World Cup came before the IPL.
No other cricket nation is better equipped to build a specialist T20 pool. But a start can only be made by recognising that India's T20 approach needs not a refresh but a reboot. And it's worth remembering that India's first T20 revolution began with a step that felt radical then: Rahul Dravid persuading his contemporaries that T20 was not for them.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal