The T20 game: India haven't figured it out yet, but they are willing to change

The BCCI has done its bit by making sure India have a T20-heavy schedule ahead of the T20 World Cup next year, and now it is up to the team to hold its side of the bargain

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
"One-day cricket and T20s have vastly different identities and one cannot look at it through the mere lens of 'white-ball cricket'," Ravi Shastri, India's coach, told Times of India recently. "T20 is a wholly different ball game, and that is how we are going to pursue it."
Better late than never, you'd think. For far too long, India have approached T20Is as an extension of the ODI, investing more values in wickets than boundaries. Now, though, with two T20 World Cups to be played before the next ICC ODI tournament, India have got the planning in place. Not only are there signs that their attitude towards the format has changed, but they are also giving themselves an unprecedented number of matches in the lead-up to the World Cup.
Between the start of this home season with a T20I against South Africa on Sunday and the actual World Cup in Australia's early summer next year, India are scheduled to play 27 T20Is. Dates and venues have been assigned for 18 of them. They won't play a single Test between February next year and the T20 World Cup. The BCCI has done its bit by making sure India have such a schedule, and now it is up to the team to hold its side of the bargain.
One of the first issues to be identified is by the leadership itself. Virat Kohli, the captain, and Rohit Sharma, the vice-captain, are the mainstays of the batting but are not among the fastest Powerplay scorers in the IPL. Shikhar Dhawan is not too different. Over the last five IPLs, their strike rates have been 127.67, 127.33 and 126.17. It is important to look at these IPL stats because when with India, the same batsmen can get away with slower starts as India traditionally lack the hitting depth of other T20 sides, making it difficult for the main batsmen to take risks.
Kohli and Rohit have high averages, they score a lot of runs, and their strike rates rise as innings go deeper. Kohli, in fact, has an overall strike rate of a shade under 140 in IPLs at an average of nearly 48 over the last five years. For India, he averages more, but strikes a little slower. Is an average innings of 48 off 35 what you want from your best batsman?
The answer to that question depends also on what India get from their revamped later order. What mix of stability and explosiveness Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, KL Rahul and Hardik Pandya provide will determine how much Kohli and Rohit change their approach. There will even be debate over whether three similar batsmen - Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli - are one too many. One of them might have to decide to change his game to make maximum use of the 20 overs.
It will help if, during this period, the team management doesn't follow the temptation outside the team to castigate the likes of Pant for every dismissal to an adventurous shot. It's the percentages of those shots coming off that should matter; they also need to be weighed against results that more traditional batting produces.
If the 2016 World T20 semi-final was a lesson to the batsmen to value their wickets less than they do, the final of the 2014 edition was a similar lesson to the bowlers. India were consistently the better-attacking side in that tournament in Bangladesh, but in the final, the Sri Lanka bowlers put up a great defensive masterclass, keeping India to 130 even though they took just the four wickets.
For a while now, India have looked to extend the wickets-slows-runs wisdom from ODI cricket to T20Is, but there are finally signs they now trying defensive options too. Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav are by no means out of contention, but India are currently resting them to see how other, less-attacking spinners go in the format. Captains often say they will take 2 for 70, well above the going rate in the five years, from their spinner any day over 0 for 50, slightly under the average scoring rate over the same period, in ODIs. However, you won't as readily say that about 2 for 40 and 0 for 30 because those two wickets have a much bigger impact on how teams face the other bowlers in ODIs than in T20Is.
Not only are those auditioning less attacking bowlers, but Krunal Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja and Washington Sundar happen to be better batsmen than Chahal and Kuldeep too. It's not the runs that they score that matters as much but the freedom their presence provides the lower middle order. Wristspinner Rahul Chahar's presence tells you they haven't entirely given up on attack either.
India don't know what the best way to play T20 cricket is yet, but what is important is they are aware what they have been doing is not the best, they are willing to change it, and they have the means and the time to do so.
"At best, four, or, maximum, five cricketers from the present 50-over set-up fit in a T20 perspective right now. We need to begin with that perspective and build on it," Shastri said.
If four or five are certain of a T20 spot, only two - Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar - can be sure of the role they should be playing in the side. Shastri and the rest of the leadership have a possible 27 matches now to settle in on the rest and their roles. It is a better approach than persisting with what has promised a lot but has fallen short of delivering.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo