Momentum is not something that you can see, rather something you feel.
While it’s not tangible, its presence is tough to ignore. Once you have it on your side, things start falling in a place on their own. And that’s the feeling you get with the Indian team that laid waste to Australia in the recently concluded T20 series.
It’s not often that a tour of Australia has two completely unconnected halves, for if you start losing in Australia it’s almost impossible to recover. Not many expected India to bounce back the way they did after getting hammered in the ODI series, but that they did.
The fact the hosts did not play their first XI and made changes in every single game helped India’s chances but to undermine India’s performance would be unfair.
Those T20Is have finally pieced the jigsaw together and now India at last has an understanding of the squad searching for T20 glory on home soil.
And India becomes World Number 1 in T20 #ICC Rankings...now, the real prize in April--World T20.— Aakash Chopra (@cricketaakash) January 31, 2016
India is really close to knowing its best T20 XI...Australia, on the other hand, couldn't be further away after these three games!— Aakash Chopra (@cricketaakash) January 31, 2016
The shortest form of cricket needs only three batsmen in top form, the rest can bat around them. Once three are scoring heavily and at a fair clip, the rest can bat with a lot of freedom. That’s how Kings XI managed a podium finish in IPL-7. Miller, Maxwell and Bailey were the main protagonists who either set or chased big totals. I’m getting a similar feeling from this Indian team in which Rohit, Kohli and Raina are likely to set the tone for the rest. All of them have form on their side, have the ability to hit the big shots and once set, have the tendency to finish off games. If they manage to keep their form intact for the next two months, India will have a fair chance of repeating the heroics of 2007.
Batting wins matches, bowling wins tournaments. While batting is traditionally India’s strongest suit, it would be naive to believe that they can win the World T20 on their own. Their bowlers will have to start contributing but, unfortunately, that’s likely to happen only if the pitches are favourable. Indian bowling needs either something from the pitch or the pressure from the scoreboard to take control of the match. It is in their best interests to prepare spin-friendly pitches and at the end of a long season and it shouldn’t be too much to ask of the curators. Once the ball starts turning, the spin trio of Ashwin, Jadeja and Harbhajan will be too hot to handle. And if pitches are conducive to spin then it should allow the two part-timers in Yuvraj and Raina to come into their own. But it’s not just about the spinners and that’s where these three T20s have contributed immensely. The comeback of Nehra and the rise of Bumrah have given India a much needed boost in the seam department.
The road ahead
The fixtures committee deserves a pat on the back for arranging lots of T20 matches leading up to March’s tournament. Earlier, the most common gripe was that Indian players were match-winners for their respective franchises but somehow couldn’t click as a national team. The format demands a clear demarcation of roles and that can only happen if the unite is cohesive, which didn’t happen often in the past. However, with better preparation there is an opportunity to not just allow people to cement their places and identify their roles, but also get people back in form. Moving forward, it’s imperative for Dhoni to find ways to make Yuvraj bat higher up the order and get Pandya a decent hit. You really don’t want a situation where people are slightly under-cooked going into a tournament.
Three consecutive T20 wins against Australia in their den is a great feat not just for the Indian team but also for Mahendra Singh Dhoni. In what was near perfect preparation ahead of the World T20 at home, India ticked many boxes and also got to know of a few problem areas without compromising on the results.
If you include the win in the final match of the preceding ODI series, the Indians have now won four games against the Aussies. That has put Dhoni’s boys in the perfect frame of mind going into the three-match T20 series against Sri Lanka, the Asia Cup and the World T20.
India made excellent use of the tour Down Under. Unlike Australia, who grew increasingly listless regarding team composition and strategy as the tour went on, India had a clear-cut plan as to who the players of the future are and they gave them the opportunity at the right moment to make their mark. However, the ODI series was a rude awakening for the Indians as far as bowling was concerned.
Thankfully for them, the top order plundered runs without failure and it showed in the series stats with Rohit Sharma (441 runs) and Virat Kohli (381) topping the list in the five match series. The Australians prevailed 4-1 but it could very well have been 3-2 had the Indians not imploded in the fourth game after being on course for a straightforward win while chasing 349.
But as the ODI series went along, the Indians started to learn from their mistakes. Their victory in the fifth match, making no mistake while chasing 331, set them up for the T20 series and what helped their cause was the disarray in the Aussie camp, with Shane Watson and stand in coach Michael Di Venuto admitting they are not sure what the side for the World T20 will look like.
Their batting more or less sorted, India concentrated on getting their bowling right. And here the credit goes to the team management for taking a brave call and backing bowlers who otherwise would not have featured so close to a world event.
In the 37-year-old Ashish Nehra, young quick Jasprit Bumrah and potential all-rounder Hardik Pandya, the Indians have found three more than decent options who can provide support to their main bowlers – spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Nehra had kept himself fit and ready for a comeback despite being sidelined for nearly five years. His performance in last year’s IPL combined with the lack of bowling options made his return straightforward.
Nehra was always an accurate limited overs bowler and the fact that he still bowls at 140kmph at this age made him the perfect candidate who could give it his all one final time. But the other two youngsters were unknown commodities.
Bumrah and Pandya stayed in the news for their decent IPL exploits but far too many Indian players have been given a break in the national team on their IPL performances, only to disappoint. But they did their bit superbly, and that too on tough Aussie wickets.
Bumrah ended up as the leading wicket taker with six scalps. What was heartening to see was his ability to bowl yorkers at will and that too at high pace. Pandya, on the other hand, had three scalps from as many games and though his economy rate of more than 10 an over needs work, he has the ingredients of a potential seam-bowling all rounder.
A resurgent bowling attack, coupled with the stellar batting of Sharma, Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan should give India a lot of fillip. But they also know there are a few weaknesses that need to be taken care of soon.
Yuvraj Singh hit a six and a four in the final over of the third T20 but up until that time, it looked like the southpaw had ruined India’s hopes almost single handedly, reminiscent of his 21-ball 11 in the 2014 World T20 final against Sri Lanka.
While Suresh Raina held his cool to pull off the win of the final ball on Sunday, it could have easily gone wrong and the blame would have been put on Yuvraj.
Then there is the batting of Dhoni. The big shots are not coming with the same frequency as earlier and in T20 games, it sticks out like a sore thumb. While the top order is firing on all cylinders, Dhoni would like to get one big knock under his belt soon. India must decide if they want to continue with Yuvraj or give someone like Ajinkya Rahane or Manish Pandey a go because India lack in lower order hitting power.
Nehra has done enough to warrant another chance and if Yuvraj too is the mix, that would make it three players in the field who are well over 30. While it worked against Australia, fitter and full-strength teams will make India pay heavily for those slowing legs.
Even so, India can take a lot of positives from the series win and Dhoni can look forward to some peaceful times when his captaincy is not questioned.
“A 3-2 verdict would have been a fairer outcome in the ODi series,” Ravi Shastri tells me over the telephone on the eve of the first T20I match against Australia. “With a little luck, that scoreline could even have been in our favour.”
I argue with him that the scoreline could in fact have been a reverse and India the side that came away with a 4-1 win, not the Aussies. Surely, a team that scores in excess of 300 runs consistently should win more matches than they lose. And India were well placed to win each match only to squander their advantage.
“That’s true,” says Shastri, “but matches are won on how players respond in crux situations, not on theory. You know how uncertain this is and let’s not forget that Australia are world champions.
“Beating them in their own backyard is a huge challenge for any side. Our players did well, but not well enough to win. That’s great learning, especially for the youngsters. The next time we are here, the result could be different.”
It’s this eternal sense of optimism that endears Shastri to the current Indian team. As team director he seems to have won the respect and confidence of most (if not all) of the players.
Having known him from his under-19 days, I’ve rarely seen Shastri unduly fazed by defeat: certainly distraught at times, but never remorseful. The chutzpah is irrepressible. The bounce back from a setback is just one game away.
Some evidence of this was visible in the first T20 that India won handsomely, by 37 runs. So emphatic was the victory in fact, it left a lot of onlookers surprised India were so vulnerable in the preceding ODIs.
Not that you can compare ODIs with T20s, that would be silly. The shortest format is the least predictable, in fact a virtual lottery. And let’s not forget that the T20 series is only a game old; it has certainly not been won yet.
Yet, unless the mindset in the dressing room is positive, it is extremely difficult for a side that has lost by a wide margin to recover so swiftly. That the Indian players, far from being demoralised, seem revitalised, is a terrific sign.
“You can’t brood too long in the contemporary game,” says Shastri. “In fact you shouldn’t brood at all. The itinerary these days is packed and the next match is always an opportunity for those who seek it.”
At the highest level, sport can be excruciatingly demanding with such little margin for error that players and coaches lead immensely tense lives. A team director or coach with a gung-ho spirit – who can reduce the temperature in the dressing room while increasing the tempo on the pitch – is a godsend.
This does not mean Shastri suffers mediocrity gladly.
“I am willing to accept mind if an individual or team is defeated after giving it 100 per cent. But I mind it very much when a player is reluctant to give off his best even if the team wins,” he adds.
“Players with that kind of attitude must quickly make way for somebody else. Great teams are made up for players who value their own and the team’s ambitions and play to potential consistently.”
That is the biggest challenge ahead for Shastri over the coming months. He has talked often of the potential and talent in Indian cricket. Can he deliver a great Indian team in his tenure? If he doesn’t, he will almost certainly feel like he didn’t do his job thoroughly enough.
Shastri’s track record since he moved into a full-time role as team director on the last tour of Australia has oscillated between both the brilliant and the very modest. In 2015-16, India lost the four-Test series 0-2.
This was not just an improvement on the 2011-12 tour when the scoreline read 0-4, but it could well have been 2-1 had the team held its nerve in crucial moments. The ODI tri-series on that tour however was a disaster.
That roused the sceptics into pre-emptive debunking of the team, but there was a swift turnaround at the World Cup where India reached the semi-final at a gallop before running into the eventual champions.
@cricketwallah True... If Aus beat NZ in the forthcoming Test series, then Aus will be #1— Mohandas Menon (@mohanstatsman) January 26, 2016
In the period since, India’s performances in Tests has sky rocketed with series wins over Sri Lanka and South Africa, but they’ve been iffy at best in limited overs cricket despite their apparent expertise.
Three of their last four four series – against Bangladesh, South Africa and now Australia – have been lost. Shastri is at pains to explain that each of these series could have been won with greater application and a little luck.
But therein lies the rub. Going by his own belief system, a good team makes its own luck, and a great team does it so consistently that luck simply ceases to matter. Winning becomes a habit, a culture that defines the changing room.
Shastri would be the first to agree that India are far from having made winning a habit. Some accolades, like becoming the number one Test team in the world last week, have been borne out of good fortune rather than design.
There is a shift in momentum that Shastri strives for: when the team has not only the wherewithal, but the self-belief to win consistently. Unless it is renewed, his term at the helm finishes after the World Twenty20 on home soil in April.
If he can instil in the players the desire and attributes necessary to forge a team capable of lifting the trophy come the final in Kolkata, Shastri will have left leave behind a legacy as a coach befitting that of his one as a player.