Debating the T20 debacle!

The Indian team director Ravi Shastri and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhone had contrasting views about the T20 showing against South Africa.-PTI

So what really went wrong for India in the T20 series against South Africa? Well, there were a few areas of concern. One, the lack of one-day exposure for Team India proved that some of these players, though brilliant in the IPL, still don’t know the role expected of them in the National squad. Clearly, the team lacked a ‘settled look.’ Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni was also looking more and more vulnerable to pressure, writes Rakesh Rao.

Ironical as it may sound, the shortest format of the game in the country offers a huge opportunity for the young and not-so-young hopefuls to aspire for instant recognition and fame.

Yes. A couple of crucial contributions in the Indian Premier League season are considered good enough to catch the attention of the spectators and the National selectors, though not in equal measure.

However, purely in the context of T20 cricket, we are living in the times of serious contradictions. A cash-rich league is given priority not only by the fans but also by the players. Worse, many IPL stars either skip or reluctantly play the National T20 championship for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.

With such fierce focus on T20, it is not surprising to find the defeat of the National team evoking debates and introspection. The recent 2-0 loss at the hands of the visiting South Africans has raised a few questions about hosts India’s preparedness ahead of the next year’s T20 World Cup.

India did line up a good number of proven match-winners in their squad. Unlike South Africa, who left out the likes of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel from the T20 squad for the longer formats during the long tour, India fielded their best yet finished second best.

The choice of Dharamsala to host the tour-opener must have pleasantly surprised the South Africans. What more, they made the most of it in the cooler environs, under lights, at the foothills of the Dhauladhar Mountain ranges.

Just when India were threatening to bat the opposition out of the contest, with century-maker Rohit Sharma and a steady Virat Kohli going great guns, the script took a dramatic turn. It took just two short deliveries from speedster Kyle Abbott to lure the two set batsmen to their doom in the 16th over. Though the run-rate was still over 10 runs at this point, a flustered India traded wickets for some desperate runs to set a target of 200.

The South Africans headed to the dressing room feeling good about how they bowled at the ‘death,’ but the Indians had reasons to feel they were still 10-15 runs short of where they wanted to be. Usually, how a team feels during the break has an impact on the outcome. And in this contest, the South Africans felt right about their chances.

India’s bowling, not as intimidating as their batting, did not make any impression and the visiting team moved into cruise mode with openers Hashim Amla and the maverick AB de Villiers taking early control.

Though India bounced right back by capturing three wickets in the space of 20 runs, Jean-Paul Duminy and Farhaan Behardien did not put a foot wrong.

Again, it was the 16th over of the innings that turned the tide in South Africa’s favour. Axar Patel was hit for 22 runs, including a hat-trick of sixes by Duminy and the success of the run-chase was never in doubt again.

In the second match in Cuttack, India’s batting failed miserably and the score of 92 was never going to be enough to make a match of it. The third one in Kolkata was a non-starter due to rain and left South Africa with a clean slate.

So what really went wrong for India?

Well, there were a few areas of concern. One, the lack of one-day exposure for Team India proved that some of these players, though brilliant in the IPL, still don’t know the role expected of them in the National squad. Clearly, the team lacked a ‘settled look.’ This was not surprising since India, at full strength, were playing their first T20 game in more than a year. Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s confidence was shaken following the surprise loss in the one-day away series to Bangladesh and the recent reverses at home have made him look more and more vulnerable to pressure. Moreover, Dhoni’s words during the pre-match and post-match press conferences convey his state of mind.

Interestingly, Ravi Shastri and Dhoni made contrasting observations pertaining to the T20 series. At the start, Dhoni maintained that the outcome of this series would have had no bearing on India’s preparedness ahead of next year’s World Cup since a lot of matches were yet to be played early next year before the form could be assessed and selection was made. But, Shastri saw the twin-defeats as a wake-up call before the big one next year.

Again, Dhoni’s lack of confidence in Ajinkya Rahane and leg-spinner Amit Mishra as T20 players also curtail his options in selecting the playing XI. Given the lack of form of Harbhajan Singh, many experts felt that Dhoni could have played with Mishra instead of the Punjab off-spinner in Cuttack thereby adding variety to the attack but the skipper is known to stick to his ideas. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. Unlike in the IPL, where roles are clearly defined for every individual, the Indian team member needs to be told of his role. An experiment ending in failure could well result in the defeat of the National squad, thereby inviting criticism. In fact, questions are already being asked about Dhoni’s place in the squad after the loss in the ODI series in Bangladesh and the defeat at home to South Africa.

Looking ahead, there are reasons to be hopeful of India’s readiness for the 2016 World Cup considering the schedule of T20 matches to follow. India will play at least six matches in Australia and against Sri Lanka at home.

When talking of any team sport, the need to play more as a unit in order to deal with the challenges better can never be overemphasised. Therefore, increased match-practice should have a positive impact on the results. Of course, there is no doubt over the capabilities of those making the squad.

For once, a T20 series signalled the start of a bilateral series, obviously with an eye on next year’s premier competition. Now with the same seriousness, all subsequent matches should be played if the hosts intend to win back the World Cup.