India’s abject surrender before the might of England in the semifinals of the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup left the followers of the game in the country in a state of shock. India’s march to the last four stage had kindled hopes among the fans that the side would not only vanquish England but also lift the title. But that was not to be as events last Thursday proved when India crashed to one of the most ignoble defeats in recent times.
What went wrong for a side that was on a high after the superb win over Pakistan in their first match in this championship. Except for the loss at the hands of South Africa, which can be attributed to the law of averages catching up with the team rather than due to any systemic flaw in its character, the squad had not put a foot in the wrong place. Hence it was all the more surprising that the Men in Blue went down tamely when challenged by England, a side that had struggled in its journey to the last four stage.
Rohit Sharma, the captain, and Rahul Dravid, the coach, gave their own reasons for this defeat in the post match interviews. The experts sitting in the commentary box also trotted out the factors that caused the Indian challenge to end on this sorry note. These were given in the immediate aftermath of the game and without the benefit of in-depth thought or analysis. One needs to look deep and study the issues that led to this drubbing and take corrective measures to prevent the recurrence of debacles of this nature.
As one sees from a distance, there are four major factors that led to the exit of India from the championship in this manner.
Though the skipper had blamed the bowlers for the loss, one can say without hesitation that one expected Indian batsmen to set England a target of at least 185 on the Adelaide track. It was surprising that the Indian top order found the going difficult against spin bowlers, with the seven overs sent down by Adil Rashid and Liam Livingstone fetching only 41 runs. Adelaide is renowned for the short boundaries square of the wicket but the Indian batsmen could not take advantage of this aspect the way Jos Buttler and Alex Hales did when England batted. One remembers Graham Gooch throwing the Indian spinners off balance by playing the sweep shot effectively in the semifinals of the 1987 World Cup, but Indian batsmen, who are brought up on a diet of spin bowling in domestic cricket, could not employ this shot against the England bowlers. This extra conservative approach led to run flow getting choked during the middle overs. Though Hardik Pandya batted superbly to bring in 68 runs off the last five overs, the opportunity to milk the spinners for another 20 runs was lost.
Arshdeep Singh is the real find of this tournament for India. From the very first ball he bowled in this championship when he dismissed Babar Azam, he has been on top of his trade and invariably brought an early breakthrough for the side. Hence it was surprising that he was taken off after bowling only one over and replaced by Mohammed Shami. In fact Arshdeep had bowled reasonably well in his first over and the batsmen had treated him with respect as well, while they went after Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Arshdeep was brought back into the attack much later, after the batsmen were well set and even then he did not fare badly. He bowled only two overs in this game and conceded 15 runs, which should be compared with 25 and 27 runs given away by Bhuvneshwar and Ravichandran Ashwin respectively in the same number of overs. The feeling persists that had Arshdeep been given one more over in his opening spell, he might have dismissed one of the opening batsmen, which could have turned the tide in India’s favour.
Two common factors seen in India’s performance in the World Cups from 2015 onwards are the wins over Pakistan and reaching the knockout stage. Though there was an exception to this general rule the T20 World Cup of 2021 held in the UAE, in four tournaments - 2015 and 2019 World Cups and 2016 and 2022 T20 World Cups - India defeated Pakistan in the group match and also reached the semifinals. In fact in all these championships the highlight for the fans in India was the national side’s win over Pakistan. We need to look into this aspect deeply and find out whether the team feels that it has passed muster once they emerged victorious against Pakistan and reached the last four stage. Players are aware of the fact that a poor performance in a World Cup will bring forth ire and anger from the followers of the game across the country. Most of them would have heard stories about stones being hurled at Dhoni’s house in Ranchi after the team crashed out of the 2007 World Cup. Players are under tremendous pressure when they turn out for the country on the big stage and a game against Pakistan is the biggest of all matches in contemporary cricket. In fact all ICC championships are structured to have a contest between these sides in the group stage on a Sunday to attract maximum audience, both to the stadium as well in front of the television set. India had emerged out of these pressure cooker situations with their flag held aloft on all occasions, except once. But the feeling persists that the pressure so overwhelms the side that their performance level flattens out by the time they reach the semifinals. This is probably one of the reasons why the team looks out of sorts and turns up with insipid performances at this stage.
Finally, we should accept the truth that the national squad has increasingly started looking like a “Dad’s Army”. The average age of the side that played this World Cup stood at 30.71, making it the third oldest team in the championship. Though age may be just a number and players are capable of maintaining high levels of physical fitness despite the advancing years, the fact remains that “out of the box” ideas and the spirit of daring, that are characteristic of the younger lot, vanish as years go by. Kapil Dev was bold enough to ask Mohinder Amarnath and Kirti Azad to bowl their full quota of 12 overs in the 1983 World Cup semifinals against England, despite the fact that they were not frontline bowlers. Similarly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni handed over the ball to Joginder Sharma to bowl the crucial last over in the final of 2007 T20 World Cup. A captain into his mid 30s will seldom make such moves as he is too steeped in conservative thinking by the time he reaches that age.
To sum up, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the team management have plenty of work on their hands to get matters back on track. Let us start by having a new captain, a post for which Pandya appears to be the best candidate. He is young, in excellent form and has shown that he possesses the required skillsets by leading Gujarat Titans to triumph in their debut season in the Indian Premier League (IPL) earlier this year. He should be given a squad where all players, with the possible exceptions of Virat Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav, are below 30 years. The team should be made to understand that the goal should be to win the final and lift the title and not limited to defeating Pakistan and entering the knockout stage.
India is hosting the ICC World Cup next year. We need to start the process of repair urgently and in right earnest if we are to stand a chance of winning the trophy.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)