No, this is not a breakdown or a detailed analysis of the Indian cricket team’s surprise loss to New Zealand in the semi-finals of the World Cup. India’s loss on the day can be put down to a bad day at the office. While the general public and the so-called pundits might be over-reacting at the moment, it was just that; a bad day for the Indian top-order at the most crucial juncture in the world cup (Let’s also give New Zealand credit for their terrific performance in spite of India having to play in rain-affected conditions).
While the loss was an excruciating one for fans of the game in India, the emotions still haven’t completely settled down. However, there are some deeper goings-on at play in Indian cricketing circles which will in all likelihood never be addressed. These issues have always existed in Indian cricket but have never come under as much public scrutiny as they do today due to the widespread use of digital media.
Politics is an integral part of modern India and when it mixes with cricket, the results can be truly devastating at times. I’m assuming that whoever reads this article will already know what I’m referring to. The fact is I probably wouldn’t be writing this article if not for India’s surprise loss in the semi-finals.
So, let’s get to the matter at hand !!
The Domino Effect
India had more or less put forward their best 15 for the world cup and everything seemed to be going well for the Men in Blue until Shikhar Dhawan’s fateful and unfortunate injury versus Australia. Everyone hoped against hope that Dhawan would recover after a couple of games. Sadly, that wasn’t to be and this set of a chain of unsavoury dominoes.
What happened thereafter is now a well-known public fiasco. Ambati Rayudu and Rishabh Pant were the standby players in case anything was to happen to the original squad. Upon Dhawan’s injury, Rayudu should have been the logical first call-up as KL Rahul was then moved up from the number 4 spot to fill the void left by Dhawan. Hence, India was in need of an established number 4 batsman who could build the innings at a steady pace. However, in a shock move, Rishabh Pant was called up. This move made little sense at the time.
To make matters more interesting, Vijay Shankar, the other number 4 option already in the original squad was then suddenly injured under very mysterious circumstances. A little before his last game against Afghanistan, he was hit on the toe by a Bumrah Yorker in training. Fortunately for Shankar, he was declared fit to play. Then just before the game against England, the team management announced that he had been injured. The reason given was that Vijay Shankar had supposedly been hit on the exact same spot by another Bumrah Yorker in training !! Following this announcement, Rishabh Pant was immediately instated in the starting line-up as number 4.
This move was a wrong one on multiple levels. Prior to this match, Kohli had vocally backed Vijay Shankar and stated that he was looking in great touch and was one innings away from playing a big knock. Then came the announcement of Vijay Shankar’s ‘Supposed Injury’. If Vijay Shankar was well and truly nursing an injury, then it certainly didn’t appear that way during the game against England. Despite not being in the first eleven, Vijay Shankar was seen running to deliver drinks during the drinks break, raising suspicions that he may not have been injured after all.
If Vijay Shankar’s omission was suspect, then Pant’s direct inclusion in the starting eleven raised even more eyebrows. When the final world cup squad was announced, Pant wasn’t included. However, his direct instatement into the starting eleven completely defeated the purpose of having players like Dinesh Karthik as back-ups.
Last but certainly not the least, Mayank Aggarwal was flown in as Vijay Shankar’s replacement. This was a huge disservice to Ambati Rayudu as he was one of the standby players. Moreover, Mayank Aggarwal was not in the ODI picture at any point of time over the last couple of years. So, his sudden inclusion made no sense.
However, these weren’t the only issues at play. So, let’s look at all the players whose fates were intertwined or had come under the scanner for some reason at the World Cup !!
The Indian team management had been grooming Rayudu to become India’s number 4 at the World Cup for around a year or so. After Rayudu hit 90 against New Zealand in the away ODI series last year, Kohli had proudly exclaimed that Ambati Rayudu had sealed his place as India’s number 4 at the World Cup.
However, when Australia toured India earlier this year, Rayudu was found wanting against the moving ball and couldn’t muster any big scores. It didn’t really help his case that his IPL season wasn’t great either. So, he was dropped from the final World Cup squad.
Rayudu has always been something of a rebel throughout his career. His run-ins with the BCCI over the now-defunct ICL (Indian Cricket League) and also with the Hyderabad Cricket Association more or less cost him his career at his prime. That said, he did really well to make a comeback through the Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings in the IPL after being granted amnesty. Yet in spite of all this, Rayudu most likely sounded the death knell on his resurrected career with that now infamous 3D glasses tweet.
The selectors remembered his tweet and did not call him up for the world cup despite being one of the designated standby players. Rayudu understood that there were other forces at play and promptly retired. What adds even more fuel to the fire is that some reports have been cropping up which state that Kohli wasn’t a great fan of Rayudu. So, when he had a few bad games against Australia, Kohli used it as the perfect excuse to drop him. In hindsight, all of this seems to add up.
If there was any selection for the World Cup that raised eyebrows, it was Vijay Shankar. It must be remembered here that not too long ago; Vijay Shankar’s international career might well have been over before it had even begun. In an asinine bit of thinking from Rohit Sharma and the team management, Vijay Shankar was sent in ahead of Dinesh Karthik in the Nidahas Trophy final in a crunch situation. What a time to make a debut !!
Thankfully for him, things ended well for India. So, he would end up getting another shot at the national team. He grabbed this opportunity with both hands and performed admirably well against New Zealand and Australia prior to the world cup. However, he had played only a handful of games and doubts remained as to whether a player could be selected based on just a few good performances.
His last-minute inclusion in place of the seasoned Rayudu didn’t sit well with many. That said, Vijay Shankar’s performances in the World Cup could be considered as a mixed bag at best. While he didn’t really set the World Cup on fire with big scores, all his batting performances looked quite good until he got out. It clearly showed that he needed some more time and that his selection may have been a bit pre-mature. However, the whole fiasco surrounding his injury clearly showed that there were sections in the team management that may not have had so much faith in him. Hence, they decided to call up Mayank Aggarwal out of nowhere.
Many consider the young Delhi wicket-keeper batsman to be the long-term successor to the legendary MS Dhoni. Rishabh Pant has really caught the public’s imagination with several swashbuckling and fearless performances in the IPL over the last couple of seasons. He has also scored a couple of test centuries against England and Australia on their home soil. In particular, what makes his him stand out is his ability to score runs at an unbelievable strike rate, making him an ideal choice for the limited overs format. All this makes him look like the perfect candidate for the Indian team. However, on closer examination there is more to it than meets the eye.
For all his flamboyance and improvised stroke-play, it appears that he lacks the basic technique required at that level. While he may have been successful in the IPL, international cricket requires some basics even if you are an unconventional batsman. More often than not, Pant swings his bat wildly at every ball and misses a ton of them. He may get away with this in the IPL but he has time and again been exposed at the international level in his limited appearances so far. He did also get away with some rash strokes in those test centuries that he scored.
Yet it appears that he is one of Virat Kohli’s favourites and he keeps getting chances regularly despite his failures or immature game play. When one is backed regularly, it stands to reason that they will eventually fire at some point and the confidence will set in. This can explain those 2 test centuries. It must be noted here that India had other more settled options for the World Cup, but at every chance, the team management did their best to promote Pant and side-line the other contenders. When one has proven settled options, it makes no sense to promote a guy who needs more time.
Rishabh Pant’s performances at the World Cup were a mixed bag. It was filled with his unconventional big hitting strokes but also had his penchant for getting out cheaply with immature stroke play. At the end of the day, his scores do make for reasonably good reading.
India’s perennial ‘Twelfth Man’ and ‘What might have been’ man seems to always be on the periphery. Prior to this world cup, DK had made a name for himself as a ‘Finisher’ over the last one year with some stellar cameo performances lower down the order. Particularly his performances in the away series against Australia and New Zealand in both the ODIs as well as the T20s helped India win games in some really tense situations. Additionally, his performances in the Asia Cup at an average of nearly 50 showed his versatility as a middle-order batsman. So, the big question here is how does a batsman of such pedigree and credentials always get side-lined ? Let’s start with his most glorious moment in international cricket to-date; The Nidahas Trophy.
DK had forced his way back into the national reckoning with some terrific performances domestically and was hence picked for the Nidahas Trophy. However, as is usually the case, he rarely got to play. Further, he usually came in to play only at the fag end of the innings even if his form and ability dictated otherwise. During the crunch finals against Bangladesh, the team management tried their best to side-line him by sending him at No.8; even going so far as to send a debutant in a high-pressure situation ahead of him. However, it spectacularly back-fired on the team management and it turned into his greatest moment.
Chances after that continued to be few and far between for DK at the international level, never being given a consistent run or backing. Yet, his phenomenal performances as a finisher with the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the IPL brought him back into the national fold once again and he managed to do well in the limited opportunities he was given.
Despite all of this, he was inexplicably dropped from the ODI squad for India’s home series against Australia just before the World Cup. As fate would have it, Rayudu suffered a sudden loss in form and Pant’s constant inclusion and promotion up-the-order failed to produce results. As a result, DK was included in the World Cup squad.
However, DK was hardly given any chance to play at the World Cup despite the need calling out for an experienced campaigner who could keep the score ticking and also accelerate if required. To make matters worse, when the aforementioned injuries happened within the team, he was still not given a chance. Adding insult to injury, the excluded Pant was brought back and directly inserted into the playing eleven.
DK was finally given a chance in the game against Bangladesh in the 45th over or so and couldn’t produce a decent score with very less match practice under his belt. Subsequently, he declared in a press-conference that the team management had made it clear that he would bat at No.7. Then, in the crunch semi-final against New Zealand, with India reeling at 5/3 in seaming conditions, DK was sent in to bat ahead of Dhoni in a baffling decision.
To his credit, he negated most of that lethal spell very well; leaving and defending deliveries in an unfazed manner. When he decided to get a move on, Jimmy Neesham pulled off an unbelievable catch to end DK’s stay at the crease and possibly his ODI career with India.
What must be highlighted here, however, is why he was sent up the order in a tense situation and under difficult circumstances. With his limited match practice and designated finisher role, this move made no sense. Clearly the likes of Dhoni and Pandya with greater match practice should have been sent in ahead of him. It appears that the team management either wanted to finish off DK for good or tried to protect their favourites (Whoever that maybe).
The Imaginary/Non-Existent Middle Order Problem
There has been much ado over India’s fragile/un-settled middle order over the last one year or so. However, upon closer examination one realizes that this is a non-existent problem. While the media, pundits and former players kept playing up this problem in the run up to the World Cup, the truth is that this was/is a problem created by the team management & selectors.
Several players had been tried out in the middle order including Rayudu, DK, Pant, Vijay Shankar, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, KL Rahul etc. Yet the team management could never settle on any proper combination. This is largely because the team management kept chopping and changing players without any clear logic. Although they initially appeared to have the right ideas by giving chances to many players, there comes a point when one has to settle down on an ideal combination. It started becoming apparent after a while, who these players might be.
Yet this is when politics set in and team management/selector favourites such as Pant started getting promoted ahead of more settled options. Instead of backing the right players and giving them consistent match practice, the team management started picking and dropping players randomly. This is probably due to the fact that the proven options weren’t among the team management’s favourites.
What adds fuel to the fire is that reports have cropped up of late indicating a rift between Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. Add the so-called social media ‘Follows’ & ‘Unfollows’ between the two and their wives; and the plot thickens. Some reports state that there is a Kohli Faction and a Rohit Sharma Faction in the team.
The Elephant in The Room: MS Dhoni
There is no doubt that MS Dhoni has been the best thing to happen to Indian cricket over the last decade. His records, temperament and achievements as a captain and player speak volumes. However, it is no secret that age has caught up with him and is a fading force. While his in-game management & wicket-keeping skills are unparalleled, his ability to finish off games and accelerate when needed have sharply declined.
It has become clear that he needs some fairly aggressive/explosive batsmen around him in order to successfully win games for India. This has become quite obvious in games where he has struggled to increase the scoring rate. As a result, the batsmen around him have had to play rash strokes in order to keep the scoreboard going and have got out as a result. The unfortunate outcome of this is that some of the other middle-order contenders around him have been blamed for being unable to get big scores.
This has in-turn distorted common perception and made people believe that Dhoni doesn’t have able support around him. His final scores may read a ‘Not-Out’ or a ‘Half-Century’ but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Further, his few big hits in the final overs may create a skewed idea about his actual strike-rate. A very good example of this was a T20 game between India and New Zealand last year. When the Indian top order had been dismissed cheaply after scoring at a slow-rate, the middle and lower order batsman tried their best to hit out against the huge asking rate. In the process, they were all dismissed. On the other hand, Dhoni just made sure that he kept his wicket and ended up with 30 odd runs off a similar number of balls. He managed to get off a couple of big hits towards the end and hence his strike rate ended up at around 100 or so.
While Dhoni may still have something left in the tank (Purely from his experience), this problem should have been solved by the selectors.
The World Cup Post-Mortem
Now that the dust has settled after the World Cup loss, scapegoats are needed as is the customary requirement. While the selectors and team management are facing their share of criticism, the weak Indian middle-order has been identified as one of the so-called culprits. In fact, the selection committee has said that younger players need to be groomed for the future which is the right thing to do. However, the way they have gone about this is suspect as usual.
Backing the Right Players & Media Reaction
While players like DK have been axed for the upcoming West Indies tour, someone like Kedar Jadhav has surprisingly been retained. This makes no sense as he was dropped during the World Cup for his slow strike rate. Also, the big question here is which players will be given the right kind of backing ? The reason why players like Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan are so good these days is because they were consistently backed. The same cannot be said of many of the middle-order contenders for the recently concluded World Cup. One can only hope that the future crop gets the kind of backing that players like KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant do.
The media reaction to this loss has unsurprisingly been over the top. Most sections of the mainstream media have called for a change-of-guard. While many players have been targeted, the circumstances surrounding the chopping and changing are rarely questioned. What’s even more interesting is that mainstream media, commentators, pundits and former players never question certain things such as the line-ups put out by the captain or the declining abilities of a superstar player. It is almost as if they are afraid to question these things. In fact, the former chief of selectors Sanjay Jagdale was recently questioned about the team and he said that he didn’t feel sorry for players like Rayudu and DK. He even went on to further state that players like Pant and Rahane should have been backed from the beginning.
Whatever the future holds, one hopes that youngsters like Shubman Gill, Shreyas Iyer or Nitish Rana don’t get side-lined due a lack of support !!