India vs South Africa: Seeking pieces of T20 puzzle
For all the shine that the Indian Premier League has brought to the country’s cricket owing to its riches and top players from around the world, it has not reflected proportionately in the national team’s T20 performances. The champions of the inaugural 2007 World T20—it triggered an explosion in the shortest format—have had to return empty-handed from the subsequent five editions.
The exposure at home has not always translated into success for India when it comes to the biggest stage. This despite having some of the most sought after stars in the game.
The previous World T20 in 2016, where hosts India bowed out in the semi-finals against West Indies, reflected a pattern that has stayed with the Indian team since: a batting line-up that fires in fits and starts, except for one man, the captain.
Virat Kohli scored the lion’s share of runs in the 2016 tournament—273 in five matches—while no other Indian could even accumulate 90.
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The failure of Rohit Sharma (88 in five matches) meant the middle-order consisting of MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina had too much on their plate. And they did not deliver either.
Sharma still remains one of India’s batting mainstays and the five tons at the ODI World Cup means expectations will only go up. What India can look forward to then is a young middle-order line-up and a side that can bat deep, and hope that the supply line of talented players thrown up by the IPL will click into a winning combination.
This was touched upon by Kohli on Saturday, ahead of the first T20 against South Africa.
The skipper explained the reasons for including spinners Washington Sundar and Krunal Pandya and leaving out Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal for the second series in a row, starting with the West Indies tour.
“It’s about finding the best balance we can as a side, and not necessarily stick to one kind of combination. If all teams across the world are batting till No. 9, 10, why can’t we? That was one of the reasons; also to give opportunities to the guys who have done well in the domestic format and the T20 format, in IPL also,” he said. “You need to take those calls at one stage. Bringing those guys (Chahal and Kuldeep) also at one stage was not taken well by people. Whatever decisions are made are to make sure the team has the best that we can have approaching the T20 World Cup next year.”
Going into the South Africa T20I series, Kohli can call upon Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, and the experienced Hardik Pandya. Add Krunal and Sundar, both possessing the ability to bat, as well as Ravindra Jadeja.
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One particular difference of the current lot from the batch of 2016 is that most of them are in an emerging group, hungry to prove themselves on the biggest stage.
Pant, who is earmarked as Dhoni’s successor in the wicketkeeper’s role, has the panache to be the marauder with the bat.
His 63-ball 128 not out, comprising 15 fours and seven sixes, for Delhi Daredevils against Sunrisers Hyderabad in the 2018 IPL would suffice as proof of his ability. However, Pant has faced criticism time and again for his rush of blood that has seen him waste good starts.
It is here that Iyer and Pandey come in. Both have been contenders for a regular spot for some time now, but neither have been able to cement it.
With the T20 World Cup approaching in just over a year and the team management looking to work out the combinations, the duo has its task cut out.
Iyer and Pandey have cool heads and rely more on conventional shots. Iyer in particular has shown the composure to soak in pressure as Delhi Capitals captain in this year’s IPL. Even if the top order fails, their presence will be comforting for the management. It will be interesting to see if KL Rahul, who might lose the opener’s slot to Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, has any role to play in the middle-order. He was not selected for the Test series, but is part of the T20 squad against the Proteas.
In the 2016 World T20, Hardik’s bowling was trusted more. But in the last four years, his batting has improved a lot and he has become a regular member in the ODI and Test sides as well. As a seam-bowling all-rounder, his value in providing balance to the side has increased. He has a strike-rate of 154.16 in T20Is, but is yet to score a half-century. Jadeja too, after his showing in the World Cup, can claim a spot in the team with his all-round abilities.
However, the X-factor for India is the presence of bowlers who can bat. Hardik’s elder brother Krunal, a left-arm spinner, has a strike-rate of 141.46 in 92 domestic T20s. He has two half-centuries too. Even 19-year-old Washington Sundar has a fifty and a strike-rate of 118.28.
The South Africa contests will be the first of three home series India will play this year (Bangladesh and West Indies are next) and the younger lot will have enough opportunity to do justice to their potential.
Exploit India bowling
However, the relative inexperience of the Indian bowlers, apart from Jadeja (42 T20Is) and Pandya (38 T20Is), has the Proteas sensing an opportunity to strike.
“Looking at the Indian team, that (bowling) is an area we are going to take advantage of. They are great cricketers and we are not taking anything away from that and our focus will be on ourselves and the little areas we can take advantage and maybe that’s one of them,” former all-rounder Lance Klusener, South Africa’s assistant batting coach for white-ball formats, said.
South Africa too are rebuilding post the World Cup slump where they finished seventh. The Quinton de Kock-led side has four T20 debutants and is aiming to make a strong statement.
“What happened at the World Cup is something to learn from. We did a few things wrong and it never came our way. We’re lucky it is a new phase in South African cricket at the moment. It’s exciting times, there’s a lot to look forward to.
“We’ve been training really, really hard the last ten days. Everyone is really eager now to get the games going and test ourselves,” said senior batsman David Miller.
Miller, de Kock and fast bowler Kagiso Rabada are the only players in this line-up to have played T20 internationals in India.
“A lot of the guys have played in India before, not necessarily for South Africa but with the A side. So, they’re experienced in playing in these conditions. And looking at the three venues we’re playing in, they’re going to be good conditions,” Miller added. The next two T20s will be played in Mohali and Bengaluru before the three-match Test series start in October.
The first T20 here, however, could be affected by rain. Showers are forecast in the morning and in the evening. On Saturday, India’s practice session in the afternoon was curtailed due to rain. However, rain abated after half an hour, allowing training to be resumed.