In the end, Virat Kohli’s swansong as T20I captain became like a Greek tragedy — the hero aware of his destiny yet unable to avert it. Afghanistan’s defeat at the hands of New Zealand in a Group 2 Super 12 contest meant India, the pre-tournament favourite for the T20 World Cup title, suffered a group-stage elimination and failed to make the semifinals of an ICC event for the first time since 2012.
But even before the tournament began, the warning signs were there. Hardik Pandya’s fitness dominated the headlines. He struggled with a back niggle during the second half of the 2021 IPL and even missed Mumbai Indians’ (MI) first two matches. He did not bowl and had a tough time with the bat. “A player like him is probably just one good inning away from getting back to his natural way,” was MI skipper Rohit Sharma’s defence of Pandya at the time.
The problem was that the ‘one good’ innings never quite materialised, and the uncertainty around Pandya’s bowling fitness left the side with only five bowling options. India’s new head coach Rahul Dravid and his brains trust will have to decide whether Pandya can play purely as a batter in T20Is if he doesn’t bowl regularly.
The lack of role clarity also hamstrung the side. During the home T20I series against England in March, Kohli had expressed his desire to open with Rohit. But with K. L. Rahul finishing the 2021 IPL as the third-highest run-scorer (626), Kohli moved to No. 3 for India’s first warm-up match at the World Cup, reasoning that Rahul, on current form, was the best choice to be Rohit’s opening partner.
The predicament, though, was that now India’s top three was made up of three top-quality batters, who all tended to get their eye in before accelerating. Ishan Kishan, who was selected as the backup opener when India’s squad was announced, played only one match. The southpaw opened with Rahul against New Zealand in an attempt to neutralise the threat posed by left-arm pacer Trent Boult. While the plan didn’t work out, there was attacking intent. India will do well to identify and act on the specificity of roles that a fast-paced format like T20 demands.
The same applies to India’s bowling. Mohammad Shami’s inclusion could be attributed more to his red-ball nous than T20 mastery. Shami has played only 17 T20Is and has 18 wickets at an economy rate of just under 10. The return of R. Ashwin, whose last T20I was on the tour of the West Indies in July 2017, was significant, too. While Ashwin, 35, has been in good form in the last two IPLs and is one of the world’s best off-spinners, his choice in the playing XI at the expense of young, albeit struggling, leggie Rahul Chahar is indicative of a T20 selection policy that is slightly more reactive than forward-looking.
Another factor that has played a role in India’s early exit is fatigue. India’s preference for all-format players has resulted in most of the squad living in biosecure bubbles for six months since the World Test Championship final in England. “Sometimes bubble fatigue, mental fatigue also creep in,” Jasprit Bumrah had said after the defeat to New Zealand. “Sometimes you need a break. You miss your family sometimes. You’ve been on the road for six months. So all that sometimes plays on the back of your mind.”
Bharat Arun, India’s outgoing bowling coach, also echoed Bumrah’s sentiment. “Being on the road for six months is a huge task,” Arun said. “The players haven’t gone home since they had a short break after the last  IPL, and they have been in a bubble for six months. And I think that takes a huge toll,” Arun had said.
Also of significance was the point Arun made about toss playing a big role in this T20 World Cup. “I’m not trying to give any excuses but the trend in this World Cup has been the team that wins the toss has a big advantage, especially when you’re playing at the Dubai Stadium,” he said. “So the wicket kind of eases out when you come out to bowl the second time. But no excuses, we should have batted better, and also the first match, we had a chance to defend our total but we looked a little below par,” Arun said. This might still sound like an excuse but Arun has a point. Of the 42 games played in this tournament till the end of the Super 12s, 27 had been won by the team that won the toss. India lost the toss in its first three matches and won only one of those three games. It won the toss in its remaining games and the result went its way both times.
India’s exit at the World Cup also brought the curtain down on the tenure of the coaching trio of Ravi Shastri, Arun and R. Sridhar. This wasn’t the farewell they had wished for and despite achieving great success with the team, especially the Test side which started to win consistently overseas, an ICC Trophy eluded them.
That said, there is perhaps very little in Indian cricket today that doesn’t bear the imprint of Shastri’s unabashed attitude and Kohli’s passion. And the likelihood is the duo’s unalloyed brand of cricket will linger for some time to come. But with their leadership now been and gone, and a new coach and a T20I skipper in the waiting, the next few weeks will be fraught with questions surrounding the challenges facing the team in the shortest format. And with another T20 World Cup scheduled in Australia next year, Indian cricket is already on a clock.
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