Cricket
Aakash Chopra 15d

Chopra: Bumrah becoming India's most important asset in limited overs

NZ in IND 2017-18, Cricket

Cream is at the top

India's batting in limited-overs cricket is all about the top three and this comes to the fore with even greater clarity in the shortest format. Shikhar Dhawan has managed to build on the momentum he gained during IPL 2017 across all three formats. Even though he played only one innings of note in the T20Is against Australia and New Zealand, it's fair to assume that he'll continue in that role for a while. It always helps to have a left hand-right hand opening combination and Dhawan has managed to address the only thing that went against him in T20 - his strike rate in the Powerplay. Right from the first season of the IPL, he has played second fiddle to his opening partners and his strike rate of just over 100 in the first six overs invited criticism. In Delhi, he showed he's willing to play a more aggressive brand of cricket, which is essential at the top of the order.

Rohit Sharma, on the other hand, is an ideal T20 opener who has the ability to both hit sixes and also bat deep into the innings. Kohli's presence at No 3 further beefs up the firepower at the top. His consistency in T20, a format which dictates inconsistency, is enviable. The secret of his consistency is that he follows the same methods that got him success in ODI cricket: playing along the ground and looking for gaps. Whenever he plays an aerial shot, he targets the V down the ground.

Muddle in the middle

India's search for a No. 4 continues even in the shortest format. Against Australia it was Manish Pandey and Kedar Jadhav in the middle order but against New Zealand the spot went to Shreyas Iyer. In fact, Jadhav didn't even find a place in the squad though he got only one low score against Australia; even there Jadhav was responsible for taking India to a slightly respectable score. Against New Zealand, Iyer got picked ahead of him and found a place in the side even ahead of Pandey and Dinesh Karthik. It must be noted that Karthik was the highest scorer in the T20I against West Indies in July.

Interestingly, and quite rightly, once preferred, Iyer got all three games and was sent ahead of Kohli in Rajkot and ahead of Pandey, Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni in Thiruvananthapuram in an eight-over dash. Ideally you want more experience while chasing 197 and more firepower in an eight-over game but the team's vote of confidence for Iyer was the highlight. Hopefully, he will be given an extended run in the team and at the top of the order. Consistency in selection would lead to stability.

The case of Dhoni and Pandya

While the team has been quite vocal about MS Dhoni's utility in the shorter formats and his contribution in the growth of Indian spinners can never be overstated, there's also an acknowledgement with respect to his role in the team. It was interesting to drop him down the order, at times to No. 7, in the ODIs but to do the same in T20Is has raised more concerns about his utility. His T20 numbers in 2017 - a strike-rate of 95 for the first 15 balls and an average of 12.5 balls for the first boundary - suggest that he needs time to get going, and pushing him lower down is not in line with what he's been doing lately. This was clear in Rajkot as well, where he took his time to settle in. Sending him after Iyer, Pandya and Pandey in an eight-over game will further raise questions and eyebrows, for it'll be viewed as an admission that he's no longer considered to have the firepower to hit big shots from the start. Besides, every bilateral limited-overs series keeps one eye on the forthcoming world event and the next World T20 is in 2020. Is the team looking for a similar role for Dhoni in 2020? This question must be answered soon.

In Pandya's case, teams are beginning to figure out a way to bowl to him. Since he hits every sixth ball from a spinner for a six, teams have started keeping spinners away from him. They bowl only pacers, who have also stopped bowling fuller, so much so that they rarely try yorkers to him. Bowlers prefer to bowl short-of-length or bouncers at him. Pandya's upper-cut fetched him runs in the past and therefore New Zealand placed the third man almost behind the keeper to cut that option. The spinners, too, have stopped bowling fuller to him, and it seems to be working for now. There's no doubt Pandya will be able to address it soon but this development is a good example of how it's imperative to evolve in international cricket. Considering India's present scenario in T20s, it is necessary for two of the top three to bat until the 15th over, which means one of Pandya or Dhoni must always don the role of a finisher.

India's bowling prowess

The highlight of this Indian team is their bowling prowess. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been steady with both the new and the old ball. Since he focuses on swinging the ball while it's new, he doesn't mind pitching the ball fuller and that happens to be the wicket taking length. He's also developed the knuckle ball and has shown good control in executing it. Yuzvendra Chahal's growth as a spinner is heartwarming. He has consistently stayed outside the line of the batsman's hitting arc and is intelligent enough to vary his flight depending on situation of the pitch and the match. In Thiruvananthapuram, he bowled much quicker but in Rajkot and Delhi he flighted the ball slightly more.

The biggest gain for India in the last 24 months, however, is Jasprit Bumrah's growth in white-ball cricket. He has developed the ball that goes away after pitching, which makes it difficult to line him up when the ball is new. His control over variations is worth applauding and his understanding of when to use which change-up shows his maturity. He's fast becoming the most important asset in limited-overs cricket for India. Perhaps, the time is ripe to start considering him as an option with the red ball too.

Another notable thing for India was their departure from the four-bowler tactic, which is the right way to approach T20s. All formidable T20 sides have five frontline bowlers and at least two more bowling options, and since Pandya provides that important all-round option, it's mandatory for India to stick with five proper bowlers in the XI. On an average, the batsman at No. 7 gets ten balls to play and therefore it's almost criminal to compromise 24 balls from a proper bowler for a few more runs off those ten balls.

India have got the top order and the bowling department covered and if they manage to address the middle-order muddle, including the finishers, they will become one of the best T20 sides in the world.

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