There was a Virat Kohli press conference before the Virat Kohli press conference. Kohli was asked if Rohit Sharma should be left out for Ishan Kishan. Kohli, speaking from a seat of power, mocked him at the mere thought. The reporter had no shout at a counter. Social media went berserk. King Kohli had "bodied" an ignoramus. Fire emojis. Taught him a lesson. Gangsta memes. What "self-control" from the skipper to not go harder at the gentleman.
The joke, however, is on anyone who, in 2021, thinks it's blasphemy to suggest that maybe, just maybe, a T20 XI is not big enough for both Rohit and Kohli. They are both anchors who have an ordinary record against spin in T20 cricket over recent years. If they bat together, both ends can get stuck. They work for their IPL teams because they are the only such batters in their XIs. Kohli has AB de Villiers and Glenn Maxwell
to score quick runs. Rohit's whole line-up is dynamic. Rohit and Kohli are important to an XI to guard against collapses and difficult pitches, but two of them is a luxury, and jeopardy if they end up batting together.
To be fair to them, India are not on the brink of elimination because of them, but the fact that it is such a crime to even question their presence in a T20 XI tells you about the structure of India's squads and attitude to T20Is.
India were in luck this year, though. If ever there was a World Cup where their anchor-heavy structure could work, it was this one. This was a squad built for games where 150 is par. They had the bowlers for the slow pitches of the UAE, and the batters for risk-free accumulation. That's why they were one of the favourites.
In an ironic twist of luck, though, India found themselves in the group of sudden death, on pitches that changed character dramatically during the course of the match. These pitches were already used extensively during the IPL, but 6pm starts in October in desert conditions give chasing sides a huge advantage with heavy dew setting in after the first innings. By the time India lost to New Zealand, 13 of the 16 Super 12s games had been won by chasing sides. Of the three successful defences, two came against Namibia and Scotland, and the third against Bangladesh was won by three runs by West Indies.
In a group with three clear contenders fighting for two semi-final spots, and where these three teams are facing each other at the start, there is no room for error or bad luck. If you lose a match early in the other group, you can hope for other teams to help you out. Here you'd need a major upset to get such help.
Batting first in T20s is considered a difficult task, but when conditions are such, you need to do extraordinary things to stay in the competition. Even West Indies - who possess better team structure and understanding of the format than India - have not been able to compete, winning one out of three games after losing the toss. Their win over Bangladesh was in an afternoon match, a possible equaliser India didn't have access to because all their games are played at primetime.
To ignore the role of luck in such a short format will be unfair on the teams. Against New Zealand India did try, within their limitations, to do what they could to counter the loss of the toss. They knew 140 was not going to be enough, so they were willing to risk 110 while looking for 170. They opened with Kishan to break up the two right-hand batters who allowed Pakistan to bowl two left-arm bowlers upfront. Just how Pakistan had Shaheen Shah Afridi and Imad Wasim, New Zealand had a similar combination of Trent Boult and Mitchell Santner who could tie right-hand batters up. Also, India wanted quick runs in the powerplay because they knew how difficult it could get in the middle overs.
It didn't work out, but there was clear attacking intent. Kishan and KL Rahul were slightly unlucky to find the only boundary rider on the leg side, but both Rohit and Kohli played uncharacteristic innings to look to balance the toss disadvantage. Rohit, who likes to get in before playing big shots, tried to hit a six first ball. Kohli, who barely attacked spinners in the middle overs in the entire UAE leg of the IPL, slogged the sixth ball he faced and kept looking to go inside-out through the covers as opposed to his usual approach of taking risk-free singles.
Both eventually got out trying to hit sixes, which points to noble intent, but with their struggle it was also apparent they were playing unfamiliar roles, batting in a manner they would otherwise only reserve for worst-case scenarios. India's team structure is not built for those scenarios. The pitch made it even more difficult.
The biggest partnership of the innings was between Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja, but when the selectors picked this squad, they were hoping for a different kind of partnership between the two. They were hoping they would regularly share four overs between them, saving each other from unfavourable match-ups. That hasn't happened.
Jadeja has made a remarkable comeback to India's white-ball sides, but he's probably being asked to do too much in this line-up. In his last 16 matches for Chennai Super Kings, he's only bowled 49 overs, as one of usually six bowling options in their XI. Having those options allows Super Kings to use him when the match-ups are favourable. Because of the mystery surrounding Pandya's fitness, however, India played Jadeja as a full-fledged fifth bowler. That leaves them with a thin attack that can make any captain look ordinary on the field.
The BCCI needs to investigate why the selectors believed Pandya was fit to bowl four overs in each game when they announced the squad, and why Mumbai Indians were less than forthcoming about his fitness status. Did Pandya take his fitness tests at the NCA as others do when they come back from injury? Did Pandya's IPL team tell the BCCI whether this was a new injury or a relapse?
Not that India had all-round options knocking on the door once they learnt Pandya wasn't going to bowl, though. The selectors had to choose between hedging their bets with a less-than-ideal allrounder and banking on Pandya's primary skill, which is death-overs hitting. They went with the latter, which, in the circumstances, was not unreasonable.
At any rate, no selection or structure can guarantee you success against the odds that sides batting first in this tournament have faced. You can only hope to be able to compete if you are asked to bat first. That India have not been able to compete is not down to lack of bravery, as Kohli said, but a lack of role clarity. The Super Kings and Mumbai Indians T20 empires run on the basic formula of identifying the right roles for their players and then letting them play that role again and again, never mind early failures.
India's post-Kohli T20 leadership will have to ensure the same. They will also have to ensure that they don't select too many batters who fulfill similar roles in their IPL teams, leaving them wondering where to bat them. They will have to make it rewarding to do well in the middle order even though that may not result in numbers that are as sexy as those the openers churn out. They will have to re-evaluate how much their batters value their wickets. Finding allrounders, extreme pace and left-arm swing is a matter of luck, but they have Jasprit Bumrah and spinners to build around; can they tap into the potential of someone like Umran Malik?
All told, the reality is that India are heading towards their first failure to make the semi-finals of an ICC event since 2012. But it is not a disaster for Indian cricket. It is a year in which they have achieved incredible things in whites. While mentioning the lack of an ICC title since 2013, do note that winning ICC trophies involves more luck than winning four-Test bilateral series away from home. It's not to say that a restructure of India's T20 cricket has not been long overdue, but only early tournament exits tend to facilitate such change.