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Analysis

Tired, timid India fluff their lines again to leave World Cup hopes on the line

Confused strategy and selection hampers team that is currently less than the sum of its parts

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
31-Oct-2021
One week and three hours after their T20 World Cup started, India have hit six sixes in 40 overs, taken two wickets, and are below Namibia in the points table of Group 2 of the Super 12s. Dubai International Stadium is two-thirds empty and scores are level with 34 balls left in New Zealand's run chase but India have left three fielders out on the boundary, allowing Kane Williamson to knock an effortless single into a gap.
It is a minor detail but one which encapsulates a disastrous week for this India side, laying bare a fatigued, confused performance in which a side brimming with talent and verve has played within itself to leave them on the brink of elimination. "There's only one way to play in T20 cricket: you have to be optimistic, you have to be positive," Virat Kohli said after the game but his side have been timid, hesitant and - most pertinently - exhausted.
India are still mathematically alive in this tournament but even three crushing wins against Afghanistan, Scotland and Namibia would not guarantee qualification for the semi-finals. A month in the UAE during the IPL should have provided ideal preparation for local conditions; instead, India's batters have struggled to adapt to slowish pitches and their bowlers have lacked any potency once dew has taken hold.
Many will point to the fact that India have lost both tosses in a tournament where chasing sides have dominated but that alone is an insufficient explanation. They have constructed a batting order featuring several 'anchors', which intends to keep wickets in hand, but have made 36 for 3 and 35 for 2 in their two powerplays, then nudged their way to par and below-par scores despite knowing dew will make it harder to defend.
Damningly, this is nothing new. India have been an excellent chasing team since the last World Cup five-and-a-half years ago, winning 23 games out of 32 when batting second. But they have consistently struggled to defend totals, doing so successfully 22 times out of 41 (24 including Super Over wins), speaking to their conservatism when batting first.
The build-up to this tournament has been defined by muddled thinking and inconsistency in batting roles, epitomised by their reshuffle after Suryakumar Yadav's injury ruled him out of this game. In March, Kohli said that he would open in the IPL for RCB in preparation for the World Cup and that he would "definitely like to partner Rohit [Sharma] at the top". Two weeks ago, he said it was a "no-brainer" that KL Rahul would open, moving him down to No. 3. After the Pakistan defeat, he mocked a journalist who suggested that Ishan Kishan - who had been told by Kohli during the IPL that he was seen as an opener - could have played ahead of Rohit. Against New Zealand, Kishan opened with Rahul, with Rohit at No. 3 and Kohli shuffling down to No. 4.
The result has been a batting line-up that has been paralysed by indecision, struggling to find the desired balance between attacking intent and stability. Despite losing two wickets in the powerplay, India's slow scoring meant that they had to keep attacking through the middle overs if they had any chance of compiling a defendable score.
"We realised that once you lose the toss, the wicket changes in the second innings," Jasprit Bumrah said. "It was a discussion that we wanted to give the cushion to the bowlers. In doing that, we played a lot of attacking shots that didn't come off today."
How, then, to defend Kohli's innings, nudging his way to 9 off 16 balls before slog-sweeping Ish Sodhi straight to long-on? It set the tone for a dismal middle phase of the innings: India failed to score a single boundary between the powerplay and the end of the 16th over for only the third time in T20Is.
Rishabh Pant's innings, a dour 12 off 19, encapsulated their struggle. Indian cricket has constantly demanded "responsibility" from its most effervescent young talent in the four-and-a-half years since his international debut and this was the result: a natural six-hitter weighed down by the burden of a buzzword. He struggled for timing throughout while attempting to rotate the strike and when he finally freed his arms, he was bowled by a 90mph/144kph nip-backer by Adam Milne. Never before had he scored as slowly in an innings of more than 10 balls.
"Every time we felt like we wanted to take a chance, we lost a wicket," Kohli said. "That happens in T20 cricket but that's a result of hesitation when you think should you go for a shot or not." The toil of more than a year spent travelling between biosecure bubbles surely played a part in that self-doubt but India are hardly the only team to have suffered that fate. Their multi-format players have been on the go since the World Test Championship final in June and must be sick of the sight of New Zealand: they are due to play them in a T20I series nine days after their final Super 12s fixture as the treadmill keeps on spinning.
With the ball, Bumrah and Varun Chakravarthy made bright starts, but the rest of their attack struggled with their lengths and were duly punished. Two of their five main bowlers - Ravindra Jadeja and Shardul Thakur - had been selected in part because of the extra batting depth they provided, but India's sluggish scoring through the middle and the eventual use of the half-fit Hardik Pandya's medium pace displayed a lack of trust in them, both with bat and ball. Their selection has highlighted a team taking the safe option in a format that rewards risk.
India may yet qualify for the semi-finals of this World Cup but it may serve them better in the long term if they do not. Their defeat to West Indies in the 2016 tournament, in which their obsession with running twos and keeping wickets in hand was shown up by a team of power-hitters, did not lead to any obvious change in their T20 strategy; perhaps a humbling exit in Kohli's final act as captain will signal a culture shift.
It would be complacent not to credit New Zealand for a disciplined, clinical performance in which they barely gave India a sniff, two dropped catches apart. Their bowlers were immaculate in their lines throughout, offering very little width, and their batters targeted the weak links in India's attack to great effect.
It was telling that their two match-winners against a who's who of IPL stars could hardly be further from playing in the league: Daryl Mitchell's only overseas T20 experience was half a season at Middlesex, while Ish Sodhi was hired by Rajasthan Royals as a liaison officer earlier this year. New Zealand are a team greater than the sum of their parts; the contrast with their opposition could not have been clearer.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98