Asia Cup — the litmus test for new India

Since its T20 World Cup debacle in the UAE last year, India’s template for the format has changed. The new gung-ho approach will be put to the test at this year’s Asia Cup.

Resurgence: Since the T20 World Cup in 2021, India has won 19 out of 23 completed matches. Hardik Pandya (centre left) has been central to the team’s success. Alongside his explosive batting, what makes him dangerous is his pace bowling.

Resurgence: Since the T20 World Cup in 2021, India has won 19 out of 23 completed matches. Hardik Pandya (centre left) has been central to the team’s success. Alongside his explosive batting, what makes him dangerous is his pace bowling. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Since its T20 World Cup debacle in the UAE last year, India’s template for the format has changed. The new gung-ho approach will be put to the test at this year’s Asia Cup.

For a country that boasts of arguably the best T20 league in the world, Team India’s methods in the game’s shortest format, for a time, had revolved around the notion that orthodox cricket was the only way to win consistently. T20 cricket for India had been a game largely about saving wickets up top before going for the jugular at the death. But India’s early exit from the T20 World Cup in 2021 changed all that. It showed why sitting back and allowing the opposition the early advantage wasn’t a viable way to combat aggressive sides.

“We made it very clear after the T20 World Cup in Dubai, where we didn’t qualify, that there needs to be a change in attitude and approach to how we play,” Rohit Sharma told  Star Sports recently. “A clear message was given to the boys, and they were ready to accept the challenge. If the messages are clear from the captain and coach and where the team is trying to head, individuals will try and do it. For that, they need freedom and clarity, which we’re trying to give.”

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That said, some old ideas are not redundant but can be repurposed for the modern game. And India’s new gung-ho approach — its PowerPlay run-rate has gone from 7.87 (2021) to 8.67 (2022) — will be put to the test at this year’s Asia Cup, which will be played in the T20 format. India begins its campaign against Pakistan on August 28. It’s the first match between the two sides since they met in the T20 World Cup last year, when Pakistan beat India by 10 wickets in Dubai.

In the 21 T20Is India has played so far in 2022 — the most by any team — head coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit have tried different combinations with bat and ball. But the Asia Cup will be a chance for India to give its likely T20 World Cup XI decent game time in the lead-up to the tournament in Australia this October.

In a squad already replete with match-winners, Dinesh Karthik — the conjurer of a magical Nidahas Trophy knock — is a reborn finisher. Hardik Pandya, arguably India’s Achilles heel heading into the last T20 World Cup, is a lavish talent and not a liability. Yuzvendra Chahal is a big hit as a reinvented leggie.

In the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, who misses out with injury, it is difficult to ignore the emergence of the latest pace bowling talent, Arshdeep Singh. The left-arm seamer’s sleek finish with the ball — his death-overs economy of 7.58 was second only to Bumrah’s 7.38 (minimum 10 overs) in IPL 2022 — was often the only silver lining in a disappointing campaign for Punjab Kings. The 23-year-old, in his limited time with the Blues, has reaffirmed his credentials as a death-overs specialist. His ability to move the new ball both ways also gives India an extra option in the PowerPlay alongside the more experienced Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

Kohli floundering

Meanwhile, the past year has seen a constant dialectic between the philosophies prioritising Virat Kohli’s experience and urgent need for transition. Although Kohli hasn’t been in form recently, it looks certain that he will keep his place as India’s No. 3 batter, returning to the squad after a break of more than a month following the England tour. Kohli has played only four T20Is since the T20 World Cup in November 2021, scoring 81 runs at an average of 20 and a strike-rate of 128.57. He had an ordinary IPL, by his standards, for the Royal Challengers Bangalore, managing 341 runs at an average of 22.73 and strike-rate of 116. However, Rohit has made it clear that “a player like him (Kohli), who has won so many matches, needs only one or two good innings to bounce back.”

A rejuvenated Hardik will be an influence on and off the pitch. Earlier this year, he led Gujarat Titans to the IPL title in its debut season. While Hardik’s strength against spin is widely recognised, it’s his batting abilities against pace bowling that makes him more dangerous. His scoring rate of 8.69rpo against pace — or a strike-rate of 144.83 — in T20Is since 2020 is the fourth best for an Indian batter to have faced a minimum of 200 balls. It also underlines an approach that has emphasised batting long through the middle of an innings, while taking a highly positive approach: hustling runs and working the field. His strike-rate in the earlier part of his T20I career was in the early 130s against pace (save 2018 when he was striking at 213.20 in six innings), but in the last two years, that tempo has risen.

Lean patch: Virat Kohli hasn’t found much form this year, but it looks certain that he will keep his place as India’s No. 3 batter. Kohli has played only four T20Is since the T20 World Cup in 2021, scoring 81 runs at an average of just 20 and a strike-rate of 128.57. He had a mediocre run in the IPL too.

Lean patch: Virat Kohli hasn’t found much form this year, but it looks certain that he will keep his place as India’s No. 3 batter. Kohli has played only four T20Is since the T20 World Cup in 2021, scoring 81 runs at an average of just 20 and a strike-rate of 128.57. He had a mediocre run in the IPL too. | Photo Credit: AFP

Hardik has hedged his bets by regularly bowling his full quota of four overs in T20Is, of late, sometimes even operating with the new ball in the PowerPlay. Against England, he became the first Indian to score a half-century and pick up a four-for in the same T20I. Hardik has performed with appetite when deployed and is currently too valuable to leave out.

Meanwhile, the depth of options has caused an opening conundrum. Suryakumar Yadav and Rishabh Pant are two of seven openers India has used in 2022. If the management has doubts about playing vice-captain K. L. Rahul as an opener (he hasn’t played a T20 since the last IPL), it could be a toss-up between Pant and Yadav.

The Pakistan threat

As is evident, the group stage team makeups will be hard to call before a round of games has been played. The ultimate test of India’s temperament would be against Pakistan, which will hope for an encore in Dubai. Pakistan had been the form side in last year’s T20 World Cup and looked dominant for large parts before eventually crashing out in the semifinal. Pakistan relies on Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan setting up a platform and ensuring one of them bats through the innings. Naseem Shah, who has never played ODIs or T20Is, has taken Hasan Ali’s place in the team. In what is a big blow to the team, left-arm fast bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi is nursing a knee injury and has been ruled out.

Sri Lanka, the official host of the Asia Cup, will hope to put a smile on the face of its fans even as the country grapples with an economic crisis. The Asian Cricket Council had to move the tournament out of the island nation because of the problems there. Bangladesh, under new T20I captain Shakib Al Hasan, will be a contender, too. The buildup to Shakib’s appointment as skipper has been rocky, with the Bangladesh Cricket Board reportedly asking Shakib to choose between playing for Bangladesh or keeping his endorsement with a betting company. Shakib ended the uncertainty by severing ties with the betting company.

Afghanistan will also pose a stiff challenge. In fact, Afghanistan’s last Asia Cup campaign, in 2018, had ended in a thrilling tie with India. Asghar Afghan, the Afghanistan captain then, has since retired from all formats of the game after the last T20 World Cup. Rashid Khan will be Afghanistan’s trump card again.

The Asia Cup will start with a qualifying round featuring UAE, Kuwait, Singapore and Hong Kong. The winner will advance to the main tournament.

Slow surfaces, large boundaries, sapping heat and middling totals could be the feature of this year’s Asia Cup. The teams who adapt the best will go deep into the tournament and stake a claim to be the best in Asia.

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