“It was so one-sided one was reminded of college romance,” screamed a troll after India lost to Pakistan by 10 wickets in their first match in the ongoing ICC Twenty20 World Cup. It was indeed a shock for the followers of the game that India lost a game to Pakistan by such a huge margin in a World Cup game, where we had never lost to our arch-rivals before. A win by a margin of 10 wickets is extremely rare in limited overs cricket, and more so in the T20 version. But the consensus was to write this off as a bad day in office when nothing went our way starting with the toss. Hence, despite strong indications to the contrary, the optimists still held the fond hope that India would bounce back with a win over New Zealand in the next game and seal a place in the semifinals.
When the format and fixtures of the T20 World Cup were announced one thought that India were placed in a comfortable group. The other teams in India’s group were Pakistan, who had never won against us in ICC World Cup matches, New Zealand, who we have always considered to be lower to us in the pecking order, besides the lowly Afghanistan, pus the two qualifiers Namibia and Scotland. All the traditional heavyweights - two-time champions West Indies, reigning ODI world champions England, one-time winners Sri Lanka, always difficult to beat Australia, and South Africa were bunched in the other group. Hence there was some amount of consternation and bewilderment when India suddenly found themselves in a make-or-break situation before the start of the game against New Zealand.
In the run up to this game, the Indian media, who had proudly trumpeted the near invincibility of the national side against Pakistan in World Cups, were forced to reveal that the Kiwis held a much better record against India in ICC events. In addition to this was the fact that India’s record in such games have not inspired confidence during the decade since winning the ICC World Cup in 2011 and the 2013 Champions Trophy. In the 2015 and 2019 editions of the ICC World Cup, India lost in the last four stage while in the T20 World Cup, the team reached the knockout stage twice - 2014 and 2016 - but fell at the final and semifinals respectively. More recently, in the inaugural World Test Championship also, India lost the final. The only bit of information that brought cheer for the legion of Indian fans was the fact that after maintaining a record of not losing at all to India in this version of the game till 2016, New Zealand could win only three out of the eight games played between the two sides since then.
One can say with the benefit of hindsight that everything that could go wrong went amiss with India in the match against the Kiwis, starting with the toss. Sides batting second have an advantage in the wickets at Dubai but India’s malaise went beyond being asked to take first strike. There was a desperation about everything they did, right from the decision to ask Ishan Kishan to bat at the top of the order to the rash strokes that gifted valuable wickets to the New Zealand bowlers. It appeared as though the side was walking towards a preordained destiny, unable to control or influence the happenings in the middle. In short, the batsmen played like zombies and the total score of 110/7 in the allotted 20 overs stood as mute testimony for the collective failure of the willow-wielders.
To the ordinary followers of the sport like this columnist, the difference between the two sides did not lie either in batting or bowling nor in the luck with the toss. It was in the attitude with which they approached the game and the body language displayed on the field. The only time during the whole match when it looked that God would smile on the Indians was when Rohit Sharma was dropped by Adam Milne off the bowling of Trent Boult even before he had opened his account. The Indian hopes soared with the certainty that a batsman of the calibre of Rohit would make the maximum use of this life to play a match-winning innings. This was not to be as the batsman mishit a long hop from Ish Sodhi and skied a catch to long on where Boult made no mistake. The more important aspect was that the Kiwis did not allow this lapse by Milne to affect their outfielding; they played with the same zeal and did not let their heads to drop. This was exemplified by the effort of John Neesham who leaped high in his attempt to latch on to a pull shot played by Hardik Pandya off Sodhi. Neesham could not hold the ball despite an acrobatic leap but he ensured that batsman got only a single rather than the six it promised to be when the ball left the bat. Such efforts win matches and one did not see anything similar from the Indians.
The second consecutive loss in this tournament means that India are virtually out of the contention for a place in the last-four stage. While defeats of this nature are disheartening, they must also be seen as wake-up calls to correct the malaises that have crept into the system. The last time India found themselves in a similar situation was during the ICC World Cup of 2007 when they were eliminated even before reaching the knockout stage. But the remedial measures initiated ensured that we not only became the surprise winners of the inaugural ICC T20 World Cup held the same year but also won the main championship in style four years later. It goes without saying that rather than hoping for miracles in this championship, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) should initiate measures to correct the mistakes that led to this debacle.
There are two aspects that the BCCI should well to instill in the players. The first is that no one is bigger than the game. The decision of the Indian side to back out of the last Test of the series against England was in extremely bad taste. There were no grounds either for the so called fear felt by players, who had all been tested negative, nor for the wholehearted support offered to them by the BCCI. This decision only conveyed the message that players were a bunch of spoilt personages, who cared more about the money and glamour offered by the Indian Premier League (IPL), rather than the pride involved in donning the national colours. It is time to correct this perception and ensure that players adhere to the code of conduct laid down by the BCCI, rather than dictate terms to the parent body.
The second is that any change has to start from the top. The decision of Virat Kohli to step down from captaincy of the T20 side after this championship offers an opportunity for ringing in the necessary change at this level. A new skipper who can lead the side for the next five years should be identified and entrusted with this task. And this job should not go to Rohit despite his amazing record in white-ball cricket. We need a young captain who can think differently and mould a new side that can tackle the challenges head on. In other words, we should be looking for another Mahendra Singh Dhoni, rather than attempt stop-gap arrangements, which would not help in the long term.
Any defeat is bad and the two losses by big margins in a World Cup campaign cause immense hurt and heart ache. It is up to the BCCI to make the most of the opportunity presented by this catastrophe to lay the foundations for building an Indian team for the next decade. There is no doubt that we possess the largest talent pool in the world and this needs to be utilised effectively to make us frontrunners again. We could do this successfully in 2007 and there is no reason to doubt our capability of doing this again.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)