Manjrekar: India’s bowlers adding as much value as batsmen
Since the start of 2016, India have played 11 T20Is. They have won ten of them, and the one loss came on a monstrous green-top in Pune. They have crushed their opponents with a sense of inevitability, and while doing so seem to have found solutions to a couple of long-standing issues that had hindered their limited-overs game.
India are by no means the perfect team, but they have built up such a head of steam, and in such a timely manner, that they start the World T20 as favourites, by a distinct though not overwhelming margin.
It only takes one defeat – to a dangerous New Zealand side, perhaps, in the tournament opener – to change perceptions, casting a harsh glare on hitherto unseen or underestimated weaknesses, but at this stage India have most of their bases covered for a tournament in home conditions. Partly by design and partly by accident, the components of a well-rounded bowling attack have fallen into place.
No one in all of India’s cricket-consuming population could have predicted, even on New Year’s Eve, that Ashish Nehra and Jasprit Bumrah would be their first-choice new-ball pair at the World T20. But that is precisely what they are, and they are doing such a good job of it that it’s hard to see a fit-again Mohammed Shami dislodging either of them. R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, meanwhile, are doing what R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja usually do.
The batting is humming along, too. The top three are in frighteningly good form. Shikhar Dhawan, for so long a puzzling underachiever in T20s, seems to have found his feet in the format, and that is a major worry for teams that also have to come up with plans to keep Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli quiet.
The big area of concern, though, is what comes after that top three. Since the start of 2014, the T20I strike rate of India’s middle order (No. 4 to No. 7) is 119.80. Nine teams do worse than India on that count, but those nine teams are Zimbabwe, Ireland, Netherlands, Bangladesh, Oman, Hong Kong, UAE, PNG and Nepal.
At the helm
MS Dhoni is part of that worrying middle order, and his finishing came under considerable scrutiny during the 2015-16 tour of Australia – though that was largely during the ODI leg, when he struggled to summon up the big hits while India chased down big targets. Since then, though, he has batted eight times in T20Is, and scored 78 runs at a strike rate of 229.41, while only being dismissed twice. Are those figures evidence that he is back to his best, or are they too skewed by the circumstances he has walked in at, with only a few balls remaining to top up a big total or a few runs needed to complete a comfortable chase?
Whatever the answer to that question is, Dhoni remains a key figure in a campaign that is quite possibly his last ICC event. Savour while you still can the hits over long-on, that airborne slap through the covers, those lightning stumpings, and the deadpan asides caught on the stump mic.
That’s Virat Kohli’s T20I average this year. He has batted eight times, scored four half centuries, remained not out four times, and done all this at a strike rate of 134.35.
Ashish Nehra’s four overs of left-arm menace have come in handy for India © Associated Press
As those stats testify, Kohli has been central to India’s winning run, absorbing pressure when early wickets have fallen, scoring rapidly while deviating only minimally from the textbook, and bending chases to his will. His presence at the crease often camouflages India’s middle-order frailties.
At ICC events, Ashwin invariably raises his game. He has a career bowling average of 31.73 in ODIs, but averages 24.88 in World Cups and 22.62 in the Champions Trophy. In all T20Is, he averages 21.56 and has an economy rate of 6.84. In the World T20 his average is 13.68 and his economy rate 5.61. It’s hard to see the pattern changing at this World T20, given the rhythm he is in, and given the conditions he’ll probably bowl in.
At various points over the last few weeks, Ashish Nehra has provoked a feeling of regret for what he might have achieved in Test cricket had his bones and joints not been so brittle. He can certainly bowl four quality overs of left-arm menace, though. The run-up is as brisk as ever, and the new ball swerves in the air and hurries off the pitch just like it used to a decade ago. Since his comeback, Nehra has taken 13 wickets in 10 matches at 19.92. Ten of those wickets have come in the Powerplay overs.
Are India taking a risk by playing Yuvraj Singh?
In the final of the 2014 World T20, Yuvraj Singh made 11 off 21 balls. He struggled to find the boundaries, and he struggled to get off strike. It meant Virat Kohli couldn’t get on strike. It meant India couldn’t get their name on the trophy.
Yuvraj, that day, was the victim of Twenty20’s structural cruelty: better the first-ball slog straight to a fielder than a 21-ball struggle that would show character in another format. It was hard to see him coming back from that, but he has come back from far bigger crises. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s here again, two years later, playing another World T20.
But the doubts persist. In the 12 T20I innings he has played since the start of 2014, Yuvraj’s T20I strike rate is 102.38. It was 153.08 before that. His dot-ball percentage has gone from 40.39 to 52.15. When the ball is in his slot, he can still use his massive reach and bat swing to devastating effect, but can he still do it against top-quality bowling?
World T20 history
After winning the inaugural edition in 2007 – and changing the landscape of world cricket – India went through a period of underachievement in the tournament, failing to reach the semi-finals in 2009, 2010 and 2012. They were back at their best in 2014, however, topping their Super-10 group with four wins out of four and cruising past a challenging South African total in the semi-finals before losing the title match to Sri Lanka.
In their own words
“I think we are running in the sixth gear – I know technology has gone into eight gears. Everything is set. I don’t think there are further gears to operate upon. How we are playing cricket and the stuff we are doing on the field is adequate for any level of game, but we have to keep our intensity up and focus should be there from ball one.”
– India captain, MS Dhoni
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo