The question blowing in the wind recently was whether the Indian top three was skill wise incapable of upping the ante or were they just taking time to internalise the new aggressive philosophy? In other words, was it a matter of skill or intent? Once they imbibed and bought into the new approach, could they shed off the self-imposed shackles and sparkle? It’s in this context that India entered this Asia Cup. The answers are coming in; a closure hasn’t been arrived yet but the top three have pitching strong cases for themselves.
The second legal ball that Rohit Sharma faced the Sunday before against Pakistan was not unplayable. A standard good length ball that shaped a fraction away. But Sharma made it look unplayable, pressing forward half-heartedly from the crease, inside the line of the ball, the bat coming down at an angle, as the ball screamed past him. Sharma blew his cheeks in relief that the ball had just eluded his bat. He was just happy, surviving the pacer’s onslaught, seeing off his torment, his face betraying uncertainty.
The second ball that Sharma faced last Sunday against Pakistan was similar. A standard good length ball destined to shape away. Except that Sharma intervened much before the ball had begun to embark on its familiar journey after landing. Sharma, gliding down the surface, as though he was wearing a skater’s shoe, rerouted the ball through extra cover with a dismissive slap. He didn’t bother standing in his follow-through and admiring the shot. He turned back, knocked the turf a few times and took guard, ready to deliver another knockout blow, his face now glowing with confidence.
In the space of eight days, there was a different Rohit Sharma, an uninhibited throwback avatar. In the same duration, stirred by Rohit’s blitz, manifested a different KL Rahul, an unrestrained counterpunch.
That’s a fine 50-run partnership between #TeamIndia openers 👏👏
— BCCI (@BCCI) September 4, 2022
In the same span, India showed their unshakable commitment to their brave new top-order batting approach that had seemed diluted after the return of Sharma, Rahul and Virat Kohli. The doubts whether the trio is equipped to alter the game with the skyrocketing demands of the game, whether their approach was outdated and counterproductive, were dispelled.
Some doubts were genuine as despite being home to IPL, the premier T20 brand in the world, India were a touch outdated in their approach. For a while, India were blind to the altering landscape and were bound by their safe comfort zone. Lack of form, injuries, lockdown and workload-management contributed and coincided to their stasis. But they have emerged out of the ivory tower and begun to sniff the air outside it.
Their most recent showing was gleaned from the postmodern manual of top-order batting in T20s. Sharma hammered 28 off 16 balls; Rahul rolled out a delicious 28 off 20 balls. When Sharma perished attempting a stroke of extravaganza, the pair had piled 54 runs in five at run-rate of just a shade under 11, their 50-run partnership consuming only 26 balls, that is almost two runs a ball, against a top-pace bowling firm. Their aggression was relentless—they did not wait for the loose or semi-loose balls to attack, but even punished the good balls too, by stepping out of the crease, by manufacturing room, by shuffling this way and that way in the crease, by dishevelling bowlers lengths and manipulating their lines.
The definitive feature, and the most encouraging one, was that none of it looked forced or artificial. Everything looked seamless. Staying in and grinding out the runs so that you become undroppable is often incompatible with the needs of the team. In T20 cricket such caginess can hinder the side’s progress. Valuing your wicket is no longer the highest priority. They understood that and the need to keep batting with freedom. So you might not always see them raising their bats after hundreds or 50s in this format, but those 20s and 30 at nearly two-runs-a-ball could be more beneficial for the team. That’s the metrics of T20 cricket— it’s not merely about the runs you score, but the pace at which you score those. A 20-ball 40 can be more precious than a 80-ball 100.
Of course, both the openers and Kohli were masterful at converting their rather steady starts to bigger knocks and accelerating towards the middle phase or end phase of the innings. All of them have respectable strike rates too—those of Rahul and Rohit are 140; Kohli’s is 137. Their methods have worked wonderfully in the past, and more of than not, when they bat deep, India ends up winning the game. But what has changed in the last two years when their approach has come under unceasing scrutiny? One reason could be the constantly evolving nature of the format, the rate of evolution is unmatched throughout all sport. With every year, or month, received wisdom takes another hit, it ruthlessly dismisses the old tropes unless they deliver victories.
Back to back half-centuries for @imVkohli 👌👌
— BCCI (@BCCI) September 4, 2022
Gone is the time when T20 was a compressed 50-over game, where the same principles were employed. A shorter power-play where batsmen look to target the last four overs, the semi-cautious middle overs, where grinding and grafting were preeminent, and the last four overs when batsmen went ballistic. Now, it is 20 overs of power-play or 20 death overs. There are no middle overs, or any such categorisations. The Plan A is to attack. The Plan B is to attack as well. They don’t handbrake, unless there is a crevice ahead.
So even after Indian lost their openers, Kohli and Yadav continued to attack. So did Rishab Pant. And only after they lost Yadav, Pant and Pandya that Kohli was asked to hold himself back. Kohli admitted as much. “Today I was making a conscious effort to strike at a higher pace. When we lost wickets, there was communication and our plans changed, where I had to bat till the 18th with Hooda. If there were a couple of batters, I would’ve gone with the same tempo and tried to hit more boundaries or sixes. But again, I ended up being in a situation where I had to go deep.games,” he said.
Last T20 world cup triggered a change
Definitely, no philosophy in T20 cricket is sacrosanct and are subject to circumstances and conditions. Flexibility is the abiding virtue. On another day, at least one of Yadav, Pandya or Pant would have clicked, and India could have ended up scoring 25-30 runs more than they eventually had against Pakistan on Sunday. “Given the situation, if we had a couple of wickets in hand, we could’ve got more runs. We’re not disturbed by losing wickets through the middle overs, because that’s the way we want to play. We want to be able to get those 20-25 extra runs that can eventually make the difference in big games,” Kohli explained.
The yardsticks too have changed. Just as sixes have more value than fours, fours more than twos and ones, dot balls as precious as a wicket ball, strike rates valued more than averages, the notions of strike rates too are changing. The once superb 135s and 140s are slow; 160 and 170s are in vogue. Just as conceding eight runs an over is a commendable feat.
The T20 World Cup last year rang the alarm bells for India. And they were quick to revise their approach. In the T20 games that followed, there was a conscious effort to seize the spirit of the age. The biggest question that remained was whether the top three could modify their approach. Could they redefine the methods that had brought them success, albeit in a different time? Realistically, before firing criticism against them and wondering whether they are equipped to change with the times, you forgot that some of them had featured in just a handful of games. Rahul had not played a single T20 game this year before the Asia Cup; Kohli in just four and enduring the worst slump of his career. Sharma, after his middling IPL season, has struck his runs at a strike rate of 155-plus in five of his 10 knocks.
So it is not so much a case of the top-three’s ineptness as them spending time to fully ingrain and internalise the new philosophy. They looked utterly comfortable in this new garb, and that perhaps could be the final piece in making India a world-beating side in the format.