Will India’s Changing T20 Stratagem Pay Dividends?

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Will India’s Changing T20 Stratagem Pay Dividends?India have embraced batters with a different approach

“You are talking about [the game changing in] 2-3 overs. I feel in today’s T20 cricket, even 3-4 balls can change the momentum of the entire game.” Thus spoke Virat Kohli, captain of India, the oldest winners of the T20 WC and among the favourites to lift the trophy again on November 14.

India have been tipped to lift the T20 crown many times post 2007. For with the IPL, which came into being soon after that aforementioned win, they were always sitting on a ridiculous depth of talent. They came closest seven years ago when they lost a final in Dhaka. Then there was a home semi-final loss to the West Indies in Mumbai in 2016, a defeat that punctured a hole in accepted cricketing wisdom. T20 was a different sport, played to a whole different set of tunes and rhythms and not merely a different format of the same white-ball game.

It’s important to revisit the events of March 31, 2016 at the Wankhede Stadium to understand where India are five years later. Batting first that night, they made 192. Kohli scored an excellent 47-ball 89*, running a total of 10 twos. Ajinkya Rahane ran seven twos of his own in a knock of 40 while MS Dhoni ran both a two and a three in a nine-ball innings. India played only 27 dots in their innings to West Indies’ 50 but were out-hit 11 sixes to 4 by their opponents, who danced their way to the final all around a forlorn-looking Kohli, the player of the tournament.

It was a seminal moment in India’s T20 journey. It laid bare some harsh truths: They were playing the game as an abridged version of the ODI. For example, they hit a six once every 27 deliveries (Bp6 26.8) in 2016 with boundaries forming 16.1% of the total score. That meant their batters preferred eschewing risks until a position of safety was reached even on truer batting surfaces in India.

It would have been easy to avoid an introspection in a tournament they finished as a losing semifinalist to the eventual champions. But India appear to have done so and have embraced the change that the rapidly-evolving T20 format has necessitated. Nothing endorses this fact more than the squad picked for this tournament. The inclusion of Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav is an obvious ode to the direction India’s T20 cricket wants to take.

There is statistical validation for the same, In 2019, the last calendar year where scheduling was unaffected by the pandemic, India were hitting a six every 16 balls (Bp6 15.9). The six is used as a differentiator metric here because India had boundary hitters even last time: Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan, Manish Pandey. They just have faster starting six-hitters now.

The IPL data too has clearly been mined more effectively to reflect this change. It is not mere coincidence that five of India’s eight batters in the side come from Mumbai Indians or Chennai Super Kings, the two teams that have scored a staggering 20% of their runs in boundaries in the last two IPL seasons respectively.

Role clarity within the team has also been paramount, according to the Indian captain. It is for this reason a power-hitting finisher such as Hardik Pandya will continue to play in his highly-specialised role despite losing out the bowling dimension from his game and thereby affecting the bowling balance. “What he brings at that No. 6 spot is something that you just can’t create overnight,” Kohli said.

Barring Kohli and KL Rahul (and Ishan Kishan if picked in the middle-order), the rest of India’s batters are also expected to essay the same roles they do for their franchises. If anything, India are better served with this Rahul, the attacking force in the PowerPlay, than the more careful anchor he plays in a Punjab Kings side with lesser depth. Kohli, on the other hand, remains the all-round batter who will play the situation and keep at bay a batting collapse, a common affliction for a team employing all-out offence.

The change is evident in the bowling too, where India have bought into the T20 axiom that wickets may be overvalued assets in a T20. Hence they picked a faster leg-spinner in Rahul Chahar. Similarly, Washington Sundar is likely to have been his off-spinning complement before his injury paved the way for Ashwin’s inclusion. Varun Chakravarthy brings the mystery element, and even if the mystery wears off after 2-3 balls, those very deliveries may have been enough to change the momentum of the game.

A sustained tilt at the title remains the basis of this change project. It’s now time to see if it will pay the dividends they seek.

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