India vs England, 2020-21, 1st T20I
“We want to be a side that plays free cricket, not have any baggage of lack of [batting] depth”
India are set to embrace a more dynamic approach to their T20I batting, which has tended in the past to blend caution with aggression. The main ingredient that prevented India from being more aggressive in the past, according to captain Virat Kohli, was a lack of batting depth. The squad picked for their five-match T20I series against England has addressed that issue, in Kohli’s view, while also adding several “X-factor” players.
“The kind of players we have added into the squad is precisely to give our batting line-up more depth and not play in a similar kind of pattern that we have played with in the past,” Kohli said on Thursday, the eve of the first T20I. “We want to be a side that plays free cricket, not have any baggage of lack of depth and one guy having to bat long enough to make sure we get to a big total.
“We have explosive batsmen in the team now, who can change the game at any stage even if you are two or three wickets down. That’s exactly what we’ve tried to address in picking this squad. So this time around, you will see guys a bit more expressive in terms of approaching the innings, and playing more freely. Not worried about whether we have enough batsmen to take care of things if we lose a couple of wickets early, which was the case before to be honest. We didn’t have enough depth in the batting to be able to play freely throughout the first 10 or 12 overs. But I see us being much more positive and free from this period onwards.”
In the past India leaned towards the conservative approach of keeping wickets in hand for a final-overs charge, as against the strategy favoured by teams like England and West Indies (when at full strength), who bat deep and consequently go hard from the start. The presence of players like Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya, alongside allrounders such as Washington Sundar and Axar Patel and newcomers like Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan, is likely to free up the top order and allow them to be more expansive.
That also means that of the three openers in the squad – Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan – only two can be fitted into the XI, and Kohli said Rohit and Rahul are India’s first-choice options.
“If Rohit plays, then it’s quite simple, KL and Rohit have been consistently performing at the top of the order for us and those two would start,” he said. “In a situation where Rohit takes rest or KL has a niggle or something like that, then Shikhi obviously comes in as the third opener. But the starting composition, Rohit and Rahul will be the ones who start.”
Earlier, one of the openers or Kohli at No. 3 have tended to take on the anchor’s role, and India haven’t done too badly with that approach. But the evolution of the T20 game has meant it’s time to take the next step. Since 2018, while batting first, India’s run rate while batting first in T20Is is 8.79, behind only England (9.05) and New Zealand (8.87). However, their run-rate during powerplay overs, a key indicator of the strategy adopted by the top order, is 7.99 in this same time-frame, fifth best among the top ten sides.
On the other hand, in that same period, India’s batting average of 35.24 is the only one above 30 among the top ten sides. And their powerplay average of 45.95 is the second best overall, behind Australia’s 48.38. Now, with more batting depth, they can trade-off average for run rate – batsmen going harder would typically mean more wickets falling, but also give them a better chance of putting on extra runs.
With the firepower of Pant and Pandya available in the middle order, and the added freedom for them of having bowlers who can bat in the lower order – especially when Ravindra Jadeja returns – India have recognised that keeping wickets in hand could be counter-productive.
“I think we have played with a certain kind of pattern in the past. We didn’t probably have a big tournament to work towards, but if you look at the squad and the additions we’ve made, we’ve tried to address a few things that we needed in specific: guys who can be X-factors with the bat, do things which are the need of the hour in T20 cricket,” Kohli said. “These guys have done so in the IPL on a regular basis. We have tried to cover all those bases.
“Now it’ll be interesting to see how they go about things in these five games because these are the only games we have as a team before the World Cup and we want to see how these guys fare out there in the middle. I feel like the squad right now with what we have, barring Jaddu [Jadeja] who will come back whenever fit, is the squad that I feel is the most balanced in terms of all the options readily available for us to take on the field as and when we want.”
Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo