India at T20 World Cup: The quest begins

Was 2007 a fluke? It has been 14 years and five T20 World Cups since India last emerged champions.

Since that momentous night of September 24, 2007, in Johannesburg, the only time India reached the final was in 2014 in Mirpur, Bangladesh. That was also their best chance of winning the title since they didn’t lose a single match going into the final. But Sri Lanka beat them handsomely, riding on their experience both in bowling and batting departments.

In England in 2009, the defending champions lost all three of their matches in the Super Eight round. Fatigue after a draining IPL season in South Africa — World Cup started just 12 days later and India played their first game on the second day of the tournament — and internal differences affected the team.

In West Indies in 2010, India again lost all three of their Super 8 games to crash out of the tournament. They were denied a semi-final berth by net run rate (NRR) in 2012, Sri Lanka, when Pakistan progressed on account of having a better NRR despite losing to India, who had lost badly to Australia.

At home in 2016, India lost in the semi-final to eventual champions West Indies.

For all the tall claims of having the best T20 league in the world — Indian Premier League (IPL) — and biggest pool of young talent, just one appearance in the final since winning the inaugural tournament is disappointing.

So, was 2007 really a fluke? No. That would be unfair to the players who stepped out of the shadows of the stalwarts of Indian cricket in the first opportunity they got. Luck definitely played its part but that’s with every big achievement ever. Certain things must go your way for you to become the world champions. That’s what happened in the 2007 final. And in the 2016 final when Carlos Brathwaite hit Ben Stokes for four sixes in the final over at the Eden Gardens.

India haven’t been a complete disaster. They may not have won the trophy since 2007 but they have won the second-most number of matches — 20 out 33 — at the T20 World Cup after Sri Lanka — 22 out of 35. India’s win percentage of 64.06, the secondbest among the nations who have played all the six T20 World Cups, is marginally below Sri Lanka’s 64.28.

What India have failed to do, especially in the last two editions, was win the big matches. Though Virat Kohli wasn’t leading India in 2016 or before that, the bigmatch syndrome has been a constant feature of Kohli’s captaincy career. In both the biggest matches that Kohli l e d India in — 2017 Champions Trophy and 2021 World Test Championship — his team didn’t rise to the occasion. Even in the IPL, captain Kohli couldn’t get his team to win a title.

Probably, one of the major aspects of India’s 2007 triumph were low expectations. Following the disastrous 50-over World Cup campaign just six months before where India had crashed out in the first round, seniors like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly had opted out of the T20 World Cup. The most experienced players in the squad had the experience of one T20 international match. The nothing-to-lose scenario perhaps freed the players from the pressure of expectations.

In a drastically opposite scenario, Kohli’s decision to step down from T20 captaincy after the tournament will perhaps increase the pressure of expectations, the desire to end on a high. Though Kohli the batter thrives on pressure, Kohli the captain doesn’t. He couldn’t inspire his Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in the Playoffs this season after announcing to relinquish the captaincy of the IPL franchise ahead of the second phase.

International cricket, however, is very different from league cricket. To start with, the squads are homegrown, not assembled. You have the whole country to choose players from without the restrictions of a limited purse. Also, the inpidual roles are different (unlike IPL, Kohli won’t open the innings here).

Over the years, it has been realised that Indian T20 teams have been an extension of their ODI set ups. As a result, their approach to the T20 game has also been ODI-like. But since the last T20 World Cup, India have consciously tried to build a team of T20 specialists. They have outrightly aggressive batters in Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya and Ishan Kishan; ‘360 degree’ batters in KL Rahul and Suryakumar Yadav to go with ever-dependable Kohli and Rohit Sharma. They also have all kinds of spin options, including a ‘mystery’ spinner in Varun Chakravarthy to go with a freakish pacer in Jasprit Bumrah and smart operators in Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami. And a jack of all trades in Ravindra Jadeja.

If Pandya is unable to bowl, it will have an effect on the team’s balance but otherwise Kohli has a near-perfect squad to launch his ‘Mission World Cup’.

In 2007, MS Dhoni started his captaincy journey towards greatness. In 2021, an already-great is looking to end his not-so-successful T20 captaincy reign on a high.

( Originally published on Oct 23, 2021 )