In the first two games at the 2022 Asia Cup, against Pakistan and Hong Kong respectively, India's top-order failed to look aggressive to pump up themselves. Although there were some glimpses in England where they showed aggressive intent right from the beginning, it seems to be not working anymore.
On Wednesday night against a minnow Hong Kong attack, all India managed to score in the first six overs was 44, with the loss of Rohit Sharma. This 44 could have made sense had they lost two or more wickets inside the Powerplay as sometimes, players need to steady the ship after losing wickets in quick succession and hence, all of a sudden, it becomes a critical phase.
But there at Dubai International Cricket Stadium, the situation was completely opposite. They had a chance to demolish the opposition but lacked the courage. And the culprits were none other than KL Rahul and Virat Kohli.
Rohit batted aggressively, smashing 21 off 13 balls before a 19-year-old Ayush Shukla dismissed him in the fifth over. But he received little support from Rahul, who wasted 39 legal balls for his 36 before eventually returning to the pavilion in the 13th over, bowled by a POK-born Mohammad Ghazanfar. At this point, Kohli, on 33 off 28 balls, was not batting with his brute force either.
Till that moment in the game, there was a slim doubt regarding the Dubai track as many felt it was not an ideal T20 wicket where batters can score runs relentlessly. But unfortunately, it was not the case, courtesy of Suryakumar Yadav’s blitz. Coming at No. 4, when the Men in Blue were hobbling at 94/2, Suryakumar plundered 68 runs off just 26 balls, dazzling with six sixes and as many fours to drive his side close the innings on 192/2. Kohli, from the other end, remained not out on 59 off 44 balls, which includes just one four and three sixes.
Let’s bring clarity to India’s overall innings. Kohli and Rahul batted together for 83 balls and hit one four and five sixes combined whereas Suryakumar singlehandedly smashed 12 boundaries in his 26-ball stay. Surely, it was all about intent, isn’t it?
Is there something in the pitch that is not visible. Simply can't fathom this approach especially from KL Rahul. #IndvsHkg— Venkatesh Prasad (@venkateshprasad) August 31, 2022
In contrast, Hong Kong batted in the Powerplay exactly how players should bat in the format in 2022. They fetched 51 in the first six overs, seven runs more than India, albeit losing two wickets. But unlike India, they don’t have many who can set benchmarks in aggressive batting and as a result, they finished on 152/5.
The contest between India and Hong Kong might not have been a mouth-watering one, but it saw an entertainer coming, seeing and conquering bowlers with his wide range of shots. But that won’t help Kohli and Rahul to escape from batting’s scrutiny.
Three days earlier when India played Pakistan in the Asia Cup opener, Rohit, Rahul, and Kohli featured together for the first time since the last T20 World Cup. In that game, chasing a paltry 148, they struggled to get going from the start there as well, managing 38/1 in the Powerplay. It was their second-lowest total in the first six overs in 24 T20I innings after the last ICC mega event. The Sunday evening could have been worse had Hardik Pandya not come to the rescue for India with his breezy 17-ball 33 not out.
Statistically, India are not that bad in the Powerplays in T20Is. Since 2021, they have aggregated 1,811 runs from 1,389 balls during this period, striking at 130.38 – the most by a team who have played at least 20 matches. But yet, their formidable top three, especially Rahul and Kohli, are getting criticized logically more often than not for their recent outings.
During their England tour in July, India batted fluently right from the beginning. After watching that, many had the belief that the Men in Blue are set to go berserk right from the start, a template which England began for the first time under Eoin Morgan’s captaincy. But with Rahul getting back in the mix along with Rohit and Kohli, it seems to be the formula is not going any further in their presence.
With the next T20 World Cup getting underway on October 16 in Australia, there won’t be much time for India after the Asia Cup to make changes in their lineup. They are yet to find the perfect balance, and their top-order's strike rate offers daunting challenges to their middle-order batters. Hardik and Suryakumar have shielded them for now, but what will happen when they fail?
As Rohit is undroppable because of his captaincy duty, Rahul Dravid and Co. must make a tough call to drop either Rahul or Kohli from the T20 setup. Instead, Deepak Hooda, considering his stellar performance in the limited opportunities, should bat at his preferred No. 3 as a floater. In that case, Rohit can open with either Kohli or Rahul. Keeping Kohli’s vast success in Australia in mind, he should be the frontrunner to get a nod ahead of Rahul, who recently recovered from an injury.
In another case, if the team management believes Hooda is yet to get ready for the T20 World Cup, they can promote Suryakumar at No. 3 as well. If that happens, he will be followed by Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, and Dinesh Karthik. With Kohli and Rohit at the top, they certainly form a potent unit, ideally for T20Is.
To bring back the elusive glory after 15 years, the Indian think tank must make tough choices. If they don’t get off to a resounding start in Australia, there won’t be much success. Their top-order batters were hammered in the last T20 World Cup, making little impact against Pakistan and New Zealand, which eventually led them to an early exit. If they do not learn from their own mistakes, there is nothing much to talk about.