Rahul Dravid and the Indian management will lose very little sleep over India’s T20I series defeat to Sri Lanka as India were put in a precarious position with nine absentees. It forced the Men in Blue to field an unbalanced XI with only five specialist batters with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Kuldeep Yadav coming in at number six and seven.
India’s balance isn’t an excuse for their top-order collapse and inability to play spin in the 3rd T20I, but it is hard to attach blame for this series defeat considering the circumstances.
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However, one alarming factor highlighted by the series defeat was the lack of multi-skilled cricketers that India are currently producing. Due to the exceptional circumstances, India fielded six specialist bowlers in the final two T20I’s, but none of them are considered as bowlers who can bat and strike a long ball in T20I’s.
The golden formula in T20 cricket nowadays is having a deep batting lineup with multiple hitters down the order. However, for India, that depth seems to stop at number 7 in T20I cricket – Bhuvneshwar Kumar doesn’t count considering his strike rate of 72 with zero 6s in T20I cricket.
India simply don’t create many multi-skilled cricketers at a high level and are fielding a team with only specialists with either bat or ball, which could end up being the difference between winning and losing on the biggest stages.
India needs to look at West Indies and England in this regard in white-ball cricket. West Indies can boast a batting lineup that includes Dwayne Bravo at number nine on some days while England could field capable ball strikers such as Sam Curran, Jofra Archer, Adil Rashid and Chris Jordan between 8 and 11.
Every batter needs to contribute to maximise the 20 overs, and with a World Cup just a few months away, this is something India needs to have an eye on when selecting their squad.
India’s Test side faces a similar problem away from home as well, with the tail contributing next to nothing with the bat on most occasions.
While Virat Kohli’s side have been excellent of late with the red ball, one of the few reasons for their defeat in England in 2018 and the ICC World Test Championship Final was the lack of runs from the tail. Yes, you can’t expect much from your numbers 8 – 11 with the bat, but compared to other nations, the Men in Blue are well off the pace.
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In Tests, England have Sam Curran, Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer, Ollie Robinson and Craig Overton who can all hold their own with the bat in hand, while Australia have the likes of Cummins, Starc and Lyon. India, on the other hand, usually fields three number 11s after Ravichandran Ashwin at number eight, be it any combination of Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammad Siraj or Umesh Yadav.
The numbers show that since 2018, India’s lower order (number 8-11) averages 13.8, which is 8th amongst Test-playing nations. However, if you look at only numbers 9 – 11, India are dead last with an average of 7.89, compared to Australia (15.6), New Zealand (15.3) and England (12.8).
While India’s fast bowlers are world-class with the red cherry in their hand, their ability with the bat seems to be inversely proportional to what they can do with the ball.
At home, India can field Axar Patel or Washington Sundar to mitigate this problem, but away from the subcontinent, none of their frontline pacers offer the same luxury. While India’s bowlers have come leaps and bounds when it comes to their ‘specialist’ skill in recent times, they evidently have a long way to go when it comes to their ability with a blade.
It is clear the next step of evolution for this team and the sport as a whole is for players to cultivate multiple skills so that they offer more to the team in both phases of the game.
This multi-skill effect is already prevalent in other sports. A decade ago in basketball, the primary role of most guards (Kobe Bryant) was to dribble, facilitate the offence through passing and score from the mid-range and beyond the arc. Meanwhile, big men (Shaquille O’Neal) only protected the rim and scored points from shots near the basket.
However, in today’s day and age, the game has changed. As guards got more skilled and started to shoot more 3-pointers, the big men (7 footers) were forced to innovate as well and improve on their handle, passing and shot-making abilities. Such has been the shift that the reigning NBA MVP is 7-foot big man Nikola Jokic who is one of the best passers in the game and was one of the leading assisters in the league last season.
In football, the only job for centre backs 20 years ago was to stop the ball from going into the back of the net. However, in 2021, the ball-playing ability of your centre-back and even goalkeeper is one of the most important factors to consider for top teams. Nowadays, defenders build up the offence while forwards defend from the front in high-pressing systems.
Sports evolve and players get better and this multi-skilled phenomenon that is already occurring in other disciplines may soon be commonplace in cricket.
In 10-15 years, having only one skill may not be enough to get into the top teams, just like how the current Indian team won’t select a player if they are a liability on the field and with regards to their fitness (Varun Chakravarthy). The next Jasprit Bumrah might also have to average 20-25 in first-class cricket to be deemed good enough to get into the national team, and the next Virat Kohli might also have to bowl some quality off-spin to give the pacers an occasional break.
However, for now, India don’t possess a Curran or Woakes and will have to compromise on either their batting or bowling depth in the upcoming Test series against England. The good news though, is that they can still create history this summer because their specialists are both their weakness as well as their strength.
[Image Credit: Indian Cricket Team]