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To avoid a thunder-Boult, India closed their eyes

by Rohit Sankar 5 minute read

Parallels drawn with the 2019 ODI World Cup hold little value. The capitulation on Sunday paints the full picture on India’s poor tactical nous in T20 cricket, writes Rohit Sankar.

In an ideal world, it is your dream opening combination. Ishan Kishan and KL Rahul. One a devil-may-care beast whose consistency chart would have purists raising their eyebrows and the other an aesthetic delight you’d be willing to forgive for the odd poor shot. Left-hander and right-hander. Freak in a successful IPL team and leader in an unsuccessful IPL team.

In many ways, Rahul and Kishan are a perfect pair of T20 openers, yet it feels oddly strange to see them opening the batting for India in a game. It’s perhaps why there was so much ruckus on social media about Rohit Sharma not being padded up during the national anthem ahead of India’s game against New Zealand on Sunday.

Rohit, after all, is India’s de facto opener across formats (now that feels weird too). The most successful IPL captain. The next national team captain in this format, and maybe others too. The limited-overs giant who once put up a team total of his own in an ODI game.

Virat Kohli had gone all “unbelievable” and palm-on-the-face when a journalist at the press conference after the debacle against Pakistan wondered if Ishan Kishan was a better alternative to Rohit Sharma in this format. Kishan did not replace Rohit in the team, of course, but he did replace Rohit at the top of the order on Sunday against New Zealand, a move that Jasprit Bumrah, at the post-match press conference, said was to give India an “extra cushion” in terms of runs as defending totals had been difficult in the UAE.

There are multiple factors that favour the move, explaining why several people were quite happy with India taking the more positive approach and looking, at least on paper, for quick runs early on.

Like Bumrah said, powerplay runs are crucial in conditions where death overs aren’t guaranteed a lot of boundaries. To have Kishan and Rahul, two of India’s best boundary hitters at the top, opening should be considered a good move. On the plus side, it shields Rohit from Boult too. In 24 balls in T20s, Boult has dismissed Rohit three times. Since 2019, Rohit has been dismissed three times in the powerplay overs in T20s by left-arm pace. Boult has 25 wickets in the powerplay since 2020 in all T20s. 10 of those have come in the very first over. To top it all off, Rohit had just been dismissed by a very similar left-arm quick off the first ball he faced with a booming inswinger in the last game.

It all made perfect sense. India had essentially made themselves Boult-proof. But they still wanted to be sure, apparently, which is probably why India played only one attacking shot in the first 16 balls of the innings. That went for their only boundary in the first four overs, but their second attacking stroke, off the 17th ball of the game, brought about Kishan’s downfall, the youngster holing out off Boult.

India had committed four basic errors at that point of the innings already.

One, they should never have opened with Kishan this game despite his commanding record as opener. Wait, what? Relax, we’ll get to it in detail later.

Two, Boult wasn’t the one India needed to proof themselves against. Yes, roll your eyes now.

And three, if they were really keen on opening with Kishan despite it being a questionable move for this game, they demoted the wrong opener.

And finally, if India did want to go all guns blazing as that opening pairing suggests, they really should have done that, and not look to play out Boult.

To delve deeper, these points all lead up to two names India are very familiar with: Ish Sodhi and Mitchell Santner. New Zealand’s seemingly innocuous spin twins had wrecked India in Nagpur five years back, giving them a taste of their own medicine in their own backyard. Five years since, in UAE where tracks have been quite sluggish, the two remain New Zealand’s key weapon against right-handers in particular.

India had to get Kishan into the XI for this game if only to keep New Zealand from attacking the right-handed heavy batting line-up with two spinners who turn the ball away from right-handers. That Suryakumar Yadav was injured presented India the perfect opportunity to do so too.

But by moving Kishan up the order, India had left it all to Rishabh Pant to separate the right-handers with Ravindra Jadeja, the only other southpaw, much more effective in the death overs and best utilised there. The knock-on effect of the move is that with Kishan opening alongside Rahul, India left Rohit and Virat Kohli to tackle the middle overs against spinners turning the ball away from them.

Two limited-overs giants, Kohli and Rohit have middling strike-rates against spin in T20 cricket of late, particularly in the middle overs (overs 7-16) and against spinners turning the ball away from them. Rohit has been dismissed three times by leg-spinners in T20s since the start of 2020 in the middle overs while striking at 127 against them. Kohli, on the other hand, strikes at a rate of 105.5 in the middle overs since the start of 2020 in all T20s against left-arm orthodox spinners and leggies, spinners that turn the ball away from him.

These are specific weaknesses teams have exploited in the IPL and by pushing the two into the middle order, India played into the hands of New Zealand’s spinners, both of whom turn the ball right to left or away from the right-hander. That Santner came on as soon as Rohit walked in at No.3 is a sign that India could have managed to force New Zealand to split the overs of their spinners had they had Kishan in the middle.

The fact that, despite going all wild at the top in terms of choice of personnel, India chose to not attack upfront is telling about how their conservative thinking in this format cost them the game. By looking to plug the most obvious weakness – one that hit them most recently too – India left themselves vulnerable to another, opening a can of worms that question their thinking in the format itself.

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