India T20 World Cup 2024

After several frustrating T20 World Cup campaigns, India finally seem to be on to something in the way they approach the shortest format, writes Naman Agarwal.

India have had a perplexing relationship with T20 World Cups. Their victory in the first edition of the tournament, their only one so far, was perhaps their most unserious attempt at it. Since then, the game has evolved, the IPL has flourished, almost leading that evolution, and India have produced bucket loads of high quality T20 talent over the years. Yet, ironically, India seemed to have been stuck in a time warp with the way they played the format in major tournaments, until now.

Not more than one anchor at the top, batting depth beyond the top seven, and an attacking frontline wrist-spinner - these were almost unanimously accepted as necessary requirements for any top quality T20 side looking to win tournaments several years back. India barely fulfilled even one of those criteria in their last few T20 World Cups. 

In 2021, they went in with a top three of Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, and Virat Kohli, a move that backfired drastically as they fatally lost their first two matches. No lessons were learnt in the next edition as they persisted with the same top three, leading to a ten-wicket rout in the semi-final. Their most frequent No.8 at the 2022 edition was R Ashwin, same as the 2021 tournament. The last frontline wrist-spinner to play multiple games in a T20 World Cup for India was Amit Mishra in 2014, Piyush Chawla being the only other with two games each in 2010 and 2012.

Unorthodoxy and tactical proactiveness have not been qualities associated with India in T20Is. Which is why when it was announced that Kohli and Rohit would feature in the 2024 T20 World Cup despite being in the twilight of their careers and despite the presence of several younger top-order batters more attuned to the demands of the shortest format, expectations were kept in check. People had seen this movie before. But, India have sprang up a surprise in the Americas. 

Maximising the powerplay

Rohit came into the World Cup on the back of a poor IPL campaign, which increased scrutiny over his spot. Deciding to drop Yashasvi Jaiswal and sticking with Virat Kohli as his opening partner meant that he had the added pressure of giving India quick starts, as T20 openers are almost required to do by default. His performance at the 2023 World Cup gave people hope, but it was neutralised by his dismal record at T20 World Cups. He has, however, managed to play his role to perfection, leading from the front and setting the template for the rest of the team to follow.

From six games, Rohit has scored 191 runs at a strike rate of 159.16 - his personal best in any T20 World Cup. His biggest impact has come in the powerplay, where he has struck at 145.3, having hit eight sixes in the phase. With Kohli struggling for runs at the other end, Rohit's attacking starts have ensured that India haven't fallen behind the eight ball in the first six overs, one of their biggest painpoints in previous T20 World Cups. 

India have also taken several tough, unconventional calls that have been out of character for them, but in line with has been needed. The most important one among them has been shifting Rishabh Pant to three. It has provided India a multi-fold benefit. It has offset the absence of a left-hander in the top three with Jaiswal not there in the XI, and has allowed Pant to maximise his output with all his unorthdox shots over the infield.

India's top three have had a combined strike rate of 135.89 in this World Cup, the highest they have ever had in any edition apart from 2021, where they smashed around Afghanistan, Namibia, and Scotland after effectively getting eliminated. Interestingly, the next best edition for India's top three was in 2007, with a strike rate of 129.94.

Proactive, not reactive

The combination of India's bowling attack has also been on point through the first round and the Super Eights. A horses-for-courses approach saw Mohammed Siraj feature in the US leg, with the pitches in New York assisting seam, while Kuldeep Yadav has swapped in straight for him in the Caribbean. Both have played their roles well.

Also read: If you hadn't noticed, Jasprit Bumrah is having one of the great World Cup campaigns

This is not the first time India have made a change to their bowling combination mid-way through a T20 World Cup campaign. In 2021, they started with Bhuvneshwar Kumar against Pakistan, swapped him with Shardul Thakur after a ten-wicket defeat, and dropped Varun Chakravarthy for R Ashwin after their second consecutive loss against New Zealand. This time, however, the changes haven't been reactionary. Even Shivam Dube, who has largely struggled through the middle overs, striking at 107, has been persisted with. 

Then there's been the case of Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel. Picking two players with identical profiles in the squad had raised eyebrows, but India have managed to fit them into the XI even and made the best use out of them.

The wonders of batting depth

With either Jadeja or Axar at eight, there has been enough batting depth to give the batters license to keep taking risks, which, credit to them, they have. Rohit's assault against Australia, where he relentlessly kept going at it, was a prime example. Most of Kohli's dismissals have also been through attacking shots, and Pant has been out reverse-sweeping at least twice. Ashwin, who has been extremely active on social media talking about the World Cup, has also highlighted the high-intent approach of Indian batters and how alien a concept it is for them.

A repeat of the 2022 T20 World Cup semi-final awaits India in Guyana. Wounds from the ten-wicket mauling against England in Adelaiade would be fresh. But if this campaign has shown anything, it's that this Indian team, unlike the ones that have come before, does not seem big on suffering the same cuts again. With rain around and the inherent uncertainty of the format, victory and defeat can come down to very fine margins. Irrespective of whether India go all the way or not, though, the 2024 World Cup should be remembered as the one where they finally came close to cracking T20s.

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