Moody skies, wet clouds, dipping temperatures and sudden rains don’t make an Australian summer. But they did this year as climate change becomes grim and just like the quirky weather, the Men in Blue, too, went through an unpredictable phase in the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in Australia.
Rohit Sharma’s men started with an edge-of-the-seat thriller against Pakistan, with a rousing win being the cherry on the cake. But when the weeks rolled by and a roller-coaster tournament headed into the climactic stage, India slumped with a 10-wicket loss to England. The meltdown in the semifinal meant that the Men in Blue’s last ICC title remains the 2013 Champions Trophy secured at the Old Blighty.
Subsequent to that triumph, India promised much but when it came to the crunch, the eject button was pressed without the parachutes attached. Crash landing from ICC tournaments became a pattern even if the so-close-yet-so-far trope played out with a few semifinal defeats becoming the unexpected full-stop.
Need for fresh blood
In team sport, squads have a life-cycle linked to the World Cups and cricket is no exception. Ageing players look at the World Cup as his or her walk into the twilight. A few might pick a big series like the Ashes to wind up but most attach their final walk with this global tournament and the fantasy would be linked to lifting the trophy.
Cricket now offers two World Cups, the conventional 50-over one happening once in four years and the frenzied T20 version occurring every alternate year. The finish line now pops up often in the calendar and it is imperative that the Indian team disbands, especially in T20s, and finds a new core, fresh legs and pulsating hearts.
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The current one is an ageing group and it is time to shed the sentiment and build afresh. Skipper Rohit is 35 and when the next T20 World Cup shimmers into view from the Caribbean and the USA in 2024, he will be 37. The selectors need to take a call on him being the captain and lasting as a player till then.
The captaincy riddle
The awkward bit is the 2023 regular World Cup scheduled to be held in India and if the selectors want Rohit to lead in that event, then jettisoning him from the saddle in the T20Is could be cumbersome. One captain in whites and another in blue is fine but if there are two separate leaders for ODIs and T20Is, it would be akin to walking on egg-shells unless a bold call is made to drop him entirely from the T20 set-up.
Even if K. L. Rahul is the deputy for now, Hardik Pandya seems a natural successor to Rohit and there are signs that the wise men are looking at the all-rounder. Virat Kohli, too, would be 36 by 2024, and a decision has to be made. Rohit and Virat remain vital in Tests and perhaps ODIs but in the most abridged version, some tough calls need to be taken. Kohli did set the Australian grounds on fire and fitness-wise, he is the best and that could grant him longevity.
From the current squad, Suryakumar Yadav, electric batter and a dispenser of hope, has to be nurtured. He is 32, obviously a late bloomer, but he needs to be preserved and if he can offer another four seasons of excellence, Indian cricket would be well served. Ravi Shastri even recommended Suryakumar for Tests. “Let him stir things a bit,” the former coach said in his inimitable baritone.
Time up for Ashwin, Karthik
R. Ashwin and Dinesh Karthik, again part of the 30-plus brigade, gained a second wind in T20Is. It was linked to the spinner’s consistency besides the fact that other off-spinners did not establish themselves and Washington Sundar has this knack of picking injuries. Meanwhile, Karthik was keen to shed this pure-commentator image; to that end, he blitzed in the Indian Premier League and forced his way back. That Karthik and Rohit are the only remaining members of the 2007 title-winning unit is a tribute to their resilience.
But it is time to move on. While Ashwin is essential to Tests, other spinners can be groomed for the limited overs’ encounters. And equally, it is time to say a thanks to Karthik and stick to Rishabh Pant with Sanju Samson and Ishan Kishan being the alternate keeper-batter options.
Among the bowlers, Jasprit Bumrah, as and when he comes back from injury, needs to be kept in cotton-wool and unleashed in key series and tournaments rather than running him into the ground in some bilaterals that hold no context or value. With left-arm seamer Arshdeep Singh evolving, India needs to usher in other young pacers too.
Ageism can be countered with the ‘older athletes come with immense experience’ argument. It is true, too, but it has to be linked to the sportsperson’s fitness. Among the seniors, perhaps Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja, when he returns, are the only ones who are in shape.
In T20Is, India needs to keep Hardik, Suryakumar, Jadeja, Pant, Bumrah and Arshdeep as the core and infuse fresh blood in the remaining slots. If there is belief in Kohli delivering the goods then may be he could be the elder statesman. But it is a decision that has to be linked to his form. Pakistan persisted with Javed Miandad in the 1996 World Cup and he looked like a parody of himself. It is a mistake that India could avoid.
India needs to revisit the way it plays T20Is and ring in the changes among its personnel. The no-holds-barred aggression that typifies modern T20 needs to be imbibed. And the fielding has to be on the spot, the time to infuse youth-allied-with-talent is now and if that means the selectors have to make some cold calls, so be it. Thankfully, with the seniors resting and Hardik leading the T20 unit to New Zealand, perhaps a glimpse of the future could be seen.
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