“In the air and Sreesanth takes it! India win! Unbelievable scenes here at the Bullring…”
“Dhoni… finishes off in style! It’s a magnificent strike into the crowd. India lift the World Cup after 28 years!”
“Tredwell misses, Dhoni misses. But it doesn’t matter. India win the Champions Trophy!”
Each of these pieces of commentary are as iconic as the moments – the 2007 Men’s T20 World Cup win, the 2011 Men’s World Cup win and the Champions Trophy win of 2013.
The victories of the 15 Men in Blue sated, if for a while, our hunger for victories and trophies.
And so, every time a team wearing the national kit enters the stadium, there are hopes. There is belief. And there are expectations, almost a demand, of a trophy. But since that evening in Birmingham in 2013, India are yet to hold the silverware across formats, including the latest, the World Test Championship mace.
We thought that it would happen in the Men's T20 World Cup 2021. When India announced their squad for the T20 Cup in the UAE, for which they were the hosts, we felt confident. Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav were in, and we thought India was going big on attack and batting depth.
Then, too, Shardul Thakur was added into the main squad, Axar Patel pushed to the reserves. And it was the last tournament for India with the coach-captain combo of Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli. With the tournament, the current coaching staff’s stint also ends. As for skipper Kohli, he has announced it will be his last tournament as T20I captain.
India opened their campaign opener against Pakistan, against whom they had never lost to in World Cups up until October 24. At the time of writing this, three matches into the competition and India are on the brink of elimination, with their hopes of a semi-final qualification resting on the outcome of the match between New Zealand and Afghanistan.
Understandably, cricket fans are disappointed and some are angry. But some are abusive.
After Covid lockdowns eased and willow met cherry again, sportspersons grew acquainted to bio-secure bubbles, being cut off from the outside world, away from their families save for digital interactions. It's hard on anyone, especially a sportsperson. We say humans are social animals; the bio-bubble made the sportsperson a social media animal. Could a pre-pandemic schedule of tours and series in quick succession be sustainable in this new normal? And yet, not much changed for the Indian players.
Their journey began with the IPL 2020 in the UAE, after which India had a long tour of Australia – three ODIs, three T20Is and four Tests. The Tests were intense, with India coming up trumps after fighting multiple odds. Then a home series against England – LOIs and Tests – was followed by the IPL 2021, which came to a screeching halt when COVID breached the bio-bubble.
The players were hurriedly sent home and then were asked to assemble in a few days for the World Test Championship final in June, followed by the five-Test series against England. Meanwhile, another Indian contingent went to Sri Lanka for an ODI and T20I series. With the fifth Test against England cancelled, again due to COVID, with India leading 2-1, the players directly flew to the UAE for the second half of IPL 2021. Within days of the end of IPL final, the Men’s T20 World Cup began.
Having been on the road for over 12 months, bio-bubble fatigue was bound to creep in. Excuse? Not at all. Facts.
“Scheduling is something that needs to be looked at in the future,” captain Kohli had said after the home series against England earlier this year, “because playing in bubbles for so long, two-three months, is going to be very, very difficult going forward. You can’t expect everyone to be at the same level of mental strength.”
NOT MENTALLY STRONG?
How have India fared in ICC tournaments after their last win? World Cup 2015 – semi-finalists. T20 World Cup 2016 – semi-finalists. Champions Trophy 2017 – runners-up. World Cup 2019 – semi-finalists. Enviable record.
In 2017 and 2019, India were among the favourites. Against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy 2017 final, they fell well short in all aspects. In the World Cup 2019, it was “45 minutes of bad cricket” that cost them.
After their loss to New Zealand in the ongoing Men’s T20 World Cup, Gautam Gambhir, speaking on ESPNcricinfo, said, “They have the skill and are a very dangerous side. We can keep talking about it that we need to stand by our team when it’s not doing well but it’s been a trend and it’s been happening for a very long time in most of these ICC tournaments, whether it’s the semi-finals or the game today as well.”
Gambhir added, “This game was literally like a quarterfinal. The problem is with the mental toughness of the side. In bilaterals it’s different because you can make mistakes there. But in these kind of games, I don’t think India has got that mental strength.”
Are India really not mentally strong? How can you gauge mental strength purely through win/loss numbers? Moreover, there have been instances of players withdrawing from either the IPL or from other tours, none of which have been from India so far. Conversely, non-withdrawal might not be a sign of mental strength but perhaps Indian players have better ability to cope with the bio-bubble, at least at the moment.
For the past few years, India have been a dominant force in international cricket across formats. They’ve won a Test series in Australia twice in succession, currently lead the Tests against England, have blanked New Zealand in New Zealand 5-0 in T20Is, and have won other bilateral series. But when it comes to the ICC tournaments, the batting has repeatedly come a cropper in crucial games.
India folded up for 158 in the Champions Trophy 2017 final, they failed to hunt down 240 in the semi-final of the 2019 World Cup and they just didn’t have enough runs in the World Test Championship final, too.
It would have been excusable if the personnel have been changing or are new to cricket. But the likes of Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli have been a constant with Shikhar Dhawan, Rishabh Pant and the likes being part of some of the recent big losses. The Men in Blue couldn’t key one batter in for the number four slot for the 2019 tournament while the absence of a genuine all-rounder plus a top-order batter who can bowl hurt them in the Men’s T20 World Cup.
India also found a way to keep Ravichandran Ashwin out of the team despite Varun Chakravarthy not really impressing in the warm-ups as well as against Pakistan. Ashwin returned against Afghanistan and got two wickets for 14 runs, showing he is an impact player.
Another example of a muddled thought process is the opening combination; Kohli had signalled his intention of opening with Sharma in the T20 World Cup before the IPL, but then went ahead with KL Rahul after the UAE leg of the IPL. Kishan was asked to bat at the top against the Kiwis with Sharma and Kohli batting a number below where they should have.
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IT’S A SPORT!
Having said all of the above, cricket is a sport; you win some, you lose some. As Ashwin said after the Afghanistan game, “Shane Warne once said you experience success 33% of times in your career. Sachin (Tendulkar) has also echoed that at some stage, so who am I, I am no different.”
Pakistan and New Zealand played superior cricket and won, and it’s no shame to admit it. But would India have been better served, had they faced either of Scotland or Namibia before or between the big games? Would they have been in a better position without the seven-day gap in the middle of the tournament?
India’s campaign is not officially over, yet. Kohli, Sharma and company have been literally living in a suitcase for the past so many months. You can’t fault them if they look forward to a quiet few weeks after whenever India’s campaign ends. And you should not hold a grudge if they have the Rag‘n’Bone Man song on their playlists and minds: I’m only human after all/ I’m only human after all/ Don’t put your blame on me.
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