The three key areas for batting of any team to succeed in the T20 format are assembling the correct players, adopting the right approach and executing game plans. While failing to do the step one right for a long time, India finally took positive strides towards improving it in the England series.
The Men in Blue added some aggressive options in the form of Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav. They even dropped an accumulator Manish Pandey though Shreyas Iyer was able to save his place in the side after being under fire. So, India did most of the things right in terms of squad selection though both Mayank Agarwal and Sanju Samson should have been retained over Shikhar Dhawan and Shreyas Iyer. But, still, it was a great change to see that India, at least, realized the need for having dynamic players in the shortest format after playing it like 50-overs cricket, largely.
And just ahead of the series, the Indian skipper Virat Kohli made it clear that India will also change their rather conservative approach and play freely sans any baggage. But in the first game, contrary to popular opinion, it was the same old Indian approach on display. No denying to the fact that it might be too early to say that and also the pitch wasn't the flattest, by any means, but the approach, and partially the selection were also not the best.
Same old approach packaged with a brand new narrative
To summarize the very first over from Adil Rashid, Dhawan punched one ball to the fielder, nudged one ball, missed out on a dragdown, there was a forward block from Rahul, a tickle down for a single. Basically, the first seven balls were just a sedate start. Nothing quite like the aggression shown by T20 champions West Indies recently against Sri Lanka in one of the T20Is when Even Lewis hammered three consecutive sixes in the first over. Yes, Rashid is a better bowler on any day than Angelo Mathews and didn't bowl as badly. But, there wasn’t much in terms of intent too from Indian batsmen against a bowler who was just bowling his second powerplay over of the 174 overs he had bowled in T20 internationals. When Rashid last bowled in the first six overs, he leaked 16 runs in 2015. But, let's wait, that might well be the silence before the storm. Let's move ahead.
Then came Jofra Archer with the second over and he got KL Rahul but that was not the greatest of deliveries, quite wide of the off-stump and a wicket borne out of Rahul's recklessness or rustiness than aggression. Kohli came out defending, dabbing, and getting beaten in the first three balls. 11 balls had gone by then. India had just two runs on the board and they had lost one wicket. No gung-ho approach or aggression was shown by Kohli till the final delivery of the Jofra over.
But it was hardly new and we had seen something similar in the first T20I against Australia, a few months back. There too, India lost a wicket early and on the fourth delivery Kohli faced, he backed into the leg side, launched the ball over the mid-wicket off Josh Hazlewood. Even in the third T20I against Sean Abbott, on the fifth ball of his knock, he had tried to make room and score. After all, it's a T20I game and even accumulators do play a shot or two in the first 10-15 deliveries they face. And Kohli didn’t do any different this time.
Coming back to the England game, Kohli got out taking on Adil Rashid. But, did he have many options at that point? India had only scored a meagre two runs of the first 14 deliveries. It's a T20I game, the powerplay is into effect. Even India have, on an average, scored 46.76 in powerplay overs, at a run-rate of 7.79, in the last two years.
Even opener Dhawan's dismissal came after he was bullied into submission by the searing pace of Mark Wood with the slog being his way to get out of the rut after having made just four off the first 11 deliveries, having faced seven dot balls. By the end of six overs, India had registered their second lowest powerplay score in T20Is - 22/3.
Ahead of the series, Kohli had made it clear that, "The players we have added in the squad is precisely to give our batting more depth and not play in a similar kind of pattern we have played with in the past. This time around you will see guys playing more freely, more expressive in terms of approaching the innings even after we have lost a couple of wickets."
At the end of the first six overs, India had lost early wickets. It’s a T20I game. Expectations of a counter-attack were ripe. However, contrary to what Virat Kohli had stated, even the aggressive players Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya lacked the usual intent and aggression with Kohli's words seeming far fetched from reality. From 15 off 9, after Dhawan's dismissal, Pant made just six off the next 14 balls he faced and ended up with 21 off 23. Hardik Pandya, also played an uncharacteristically slow knock, made 19 off 21 while with Shreyas Iyer, as well as he did, unlike Suryakumar Yadav or a Sanju Samson, took his own time to settle in before playing a good knock.
Forget execution, India didn't even adopt the aggressive approach with conviction, be it the powerplay overs or the middle-overs of the game and it only seemed limited to press-conferences. Had they done so, and failed to execute, they would have bundled-out for 120 than making 124 after 20 overs. In fact, India lost it's fifth wicket in the 18th over and it was more of the same old wicket-saving approach on display despite the likes of Shardul Thakur, Washington Sundar and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, all handy with the bat in the shed. Even if we try to rationalize India's approach, making 130-140 was never going to be enough to win and the team needed at least 160-170, for which they needed to take the game on despite the early jolts.
The need to take a leaf out of England’s white-ball book of revolution
If India are serious about playing aggressive cricket, they need to follow in the footsteps of England. When they started the white-ball revolution post the 2015 World Cup, first of all, they invested in the right personnel and then the right approach followed with the execution. They had the courage, heart and conviction to live by the sword and die by the sword. There were 350-plus-scores but also their shares of lower scores and criticism, when they perished trying to go my way or the highway. But this is what has helped them reach the finale of 2016 World T20, win the 2019 World Cup and emerge as top dogs in white-ball cricket as well.
Even in the first game against India, on a slow wicket, England backed their aggressive approach, took on the bowlers and had put up 50 runs on the board in the powerplay. No wonder they cruised to an easy win. India are still in nascent stages of the experimentation and their attempts seem half-baked in terms of both selection and approach.
Or else, Mayank Agarwal, who's a naturally aggressive player would have been back-up opener and not Shikhar Dhawan, who might have had a great last IPL. But has been an underwhelming performer in the T20I format and is an accumulator in a team of many such players. Even playing Shreyas Iyer at 5 doesn't reflect too well considering it's one of the most dynamic positions, which requires someone who can also play the aggressor role from the word go apart from the anchor role which the top three can play anyway. And this is where someone like Suryakumar Yadav should have been tried given frailties of Iyer in the shortest format. But it's more like Iyer’s ODI reputation precedes the need of the T20 team.
Moreover, even if anchors are asked to play aggressively, it would only turn out to be a failed experiment as you pick right players for right roles than the other way around, something that has lacked with Virat Kohli's Team India or the RCB. It's interesting that Kohli questioned the journalist in return when asked about the future of R Ashwin in white-ball format. He reasoned the exclusion by saying that Washington Sundar and R Ashwin can't be in the same squad as both are offies though they are different in terms of skills. But then Kohli himself plays four anchors/accumulators in the same XI, which is ironic and makes it hard to understand the puzzle that Indian cricket is itself.