INDvBAN 1st T20I: Hunters become the hunted, voluntarily

Vishal Menon
Rohit Sharma takes part in a practice session at the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium in New Delhi on Friday. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

India captain Virat Kohli relishes chases. In T20Is, he averages a sensational 81.23 while gunning down opposition targets. Last month, however, during the third and final T20 match against South Africa in Bengaluru, he decided to go against the grain and took first strike after winning the toss. The move backfired and India lost that match by 9 wickets. The loss did little to quell Kohli's confidence. During the press conference, he asserted that he did this to challenge his players and allow them to come out of their comfort zone by batting first precisely because T20 is a format where chasing was a lot easier.

“I would say that only in T20 cricket chasing is easier. In ODIs, bowlers have the time to make a comeback, but in this format, a partnership of 40-50 runs can take the game away from you,” he said, before adding: “One good partnership and you’re under the pump even if you are defending 200,” he said.

The Bengaluru game provided a peek into the Indian captain's flexible mindset while chalking out his team's template in the run-up to the World T20 in Australia, which is scheduled in October 2020. Simply put, opting to bat first after winning the toss would be the way forward for India in the game's shortest format. “That's exactly what we want to do and this will be the template that we will follow for the games before the World Cup. The mindset has to be flexible and to try out things when situations are stacked against us. We will have games like this where we don't execute what we want. But as long as the intent is there to improve, we'll be in a good zone,” Kohli explained.

Two days before India's opening T20 fixture against Bangladesh, team's batting coach Vikram Rathour reaffirmed the captain's mantra. "In the last series, we deliberately batted first in one of the matches that we lost, because we believe that's an area we need to work on. We need to bat better when we bat first as we are pretty confident while chasing,” Rathour said.

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India have endured a string of losses in recent times in T20s while batting first. In the last two years — starting from the series against Australia in 2017 — India have lost 7 matches and won 11 while taking first strike. Of the last five matches where they have batted first, they have lost four.

What makes Kohli quietly confident about this move is the talented pool of players at his disposal who have the insouciance and the temperament to pull off singular acts of brilliance in the face of adversity.

The Indian captain’s decision is also based on the team’s sudden implosions in the ICC events. The 2014 World T20 final against Sri Lanka in Dhaka and the semifinal against West Indies at the Wankhede two years later are two classic examples when India wilted while batting first.

This move is a bit paradoxical for a team that has continually befuddled during chases in ODIs. The World Cup semifinal loss to New Zealand at Old Trafford may seem a one-off instance, but even their other loss at the showpiece event in England came while chasing. Now, add to that the 2015 World Cup semifinal loss to Australia in Sydney, and to Pakistan two years later in the Champions Trophy final at The Oval, and you have a pretty sombre looking list of self-combustions while chasing in the 50-over format.

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That, however, is no reason to find fault with the team management’s reasoning. “Mentally, if we put ourselves in a situation where we are ready to do anything rather than wanting to do one thing, we will be in a better position as a side to capitalise on any situation that we are in,” insisted Kohli.

“Unless you do that, unless you start taking those risks, you are always going to be put under somewhere or the other. We want to make sure that we iron all those out before we head into the World Cup.”

With the World T20 barely a year away, the Indian team management believes that the time is ripe to carry out such experiments. One among them would be to bat first in T20s after winning the toss. So, what began in Bengaluru against South Africa last month, is all set to continue in the upcoming three-match T20 series against Bangladesh as well.

Rohit suffers injury scare

India captain Rohit Sharma was hit on his rib-cage while taking throwdowns during training session on Friday. Rohit, who will lead the team against Bangladesh, received the blow by Nuwan Seneviratne, a throwdown expert from Sri Lanka, who was brought in to counter left-arm seamers in the Bangladesh squad."There is nothing to worry...he is absolutely fine," a team source told The Indian Express.