Ben Jones looks at how India are starting to focus on next years tournament.
India’s T20 series against South Africa wasn’t all they needed it to be, in more ways than one. The rain throughout the first scheduled match reduced the series down to just two matches, limiting the opportunity for the selectors to shuffle their pack and look at more players; equally, the loss in Bengaluru has brought up some important questions about India’s strategy, and their broader approach to next year’s T20 World Cup.
Purely as a loss in its own right, the game meant very little. A sub-par score chased down by the opposition’s best batsman is a frustrating but not concerning way to lose a T20 match. No, what will concern Virat Kohli and the Indian coaching staff is that, for the first time in a long time, India’s inability to post a winning target was self-inflicted.
Since the start of 2016, India have won the toss in 26 T20 internationals. In 24 of those matches, they have opted to bowl first. Whilst chasing is the optimal strategy for most T20 sides around the world, the extremity of the bias that India have towards chasing is unusual. On some occasions, even the most ideological captain and coach combination would look at the pitch, look at the opposition, and determine that the best route to victory was to bat first. But up until the start of August this year, Kohli stood strong with his approach.
But now, in two of their last four T20s where they have won the toss, India have opted to bat first. Why?
Well, with a year until the T20 World Cup, these bilateral series have begun to take on greater importance, existing not just in isolation but as high-profile preparation for a tournament which is going to be more keenly fought than ever before. India are blessed with the most high-profile, high-quality T20 league in the world. They are perhaps the most richly funded cricket team of all time. You can make the argument that, for many in this set-up, failure should not be an option.
And so, the elimination of risk and the covering of all bases has come into focus. For cricketing set-up as vast as India’s, weakness that could stem from something as simple as the toss of a coin is not good enough.
Of course, over a long period, India have not shown a particular disadvantage when batting first, their win percentage slightly lower than when they are chasing – but that’s to be expected.
However, that pattern is more concerning in recent times. Since the start last year, the difference in fortune for India depending on whether they bat first or chase is big – too big, for a side as good as India. It’s understandable that Kohli, whilst maintaining his preference for chasing, is eager to give his side more experience of setting a total.
There are other things they can do to ease the process ahead of the World Cup. India could attempt to produce pitches which are less helpful to spin bowlers (similar to the Wankhede) which would allow them to play with the balance of their attack. In both games, at the Chinnaswamy and in Mohali, India selected three spinners; very few sides are going to be selecting three spinners in Australia next year. In the last four years, only 35% of the deliveries bowled in the Big Bash have been from spinners, the second lowest figure for any of the ‘major’ T20 leagues.
Perhaps that’s India’s point of difference, that they are lucky enough to have three spinners who each demand selection, albeit to varying degrees. But when the IPL is played on the variety of surfaces that it is, there is a strong argument that a player base able to bend and adapt to the conditions of a match, series, tournament, is the very least Kohli and Shastri can demand.
Ultimately, India are in a similar position to how they were 12 months before the 50 over World Cup, part of a leading pack of favourites, albeit one not as far ahead. Such is the strength of the player base they can select from, India are going to be formidable opponents regardless of the quirks and specifics of tosses and teams. However, they shouldn’t be complacent – with the right preparation, informed by the conditions and the situations they’re likely to meet, India could run away with it.
Ben Jones is an analyst.