How India’s batsmen, Kohli included, failed to play bravely against New Zealand

What is it to be brave on a cricket field, especially in the T20 version, when one isn’t talking about facing bouncers on a hostile pitch? A dash of initiative to seize the game by the scruff of its neck and bend it your way. Not desperate slogging after dawdling around, and certainly not meandering along hoping the opposition would muck up, both of which India did against New Zealand.

Skipper Virat Kohli certainly didn’t see that quality in his team on Sunday. Usually after a loss, the Indian skipper speaks about intent, this time he put the side’s courage under the scanner.

“I don’t think we were brave enough with bat or ball … Every time we felt like we want to take a chance [while batting], we lost a wicket,” Kohli said after the defeat. “That happens in T20 cricket, but that’s most probably or most often the result of that little bit of hesitation with the bat, when you feel like ‘should you go for the shot or not’.”

Should that lack of braveness be blamed on age or a team that now supposedly needs a total overhaul? As Chennai Super Kings have just proved, and other countless examples in the past, age has nothing to do with it. It’s the ability a few have to make decisions (read shot selection) with some clarity. The Indians didn’t show it.

India’s batting approach reeked of desperation, slogging to get out of a self-induced choke, leading to poor shot selection. This team doesn’t have power-hitters top down a la England. When the Kiwis stopped them from rotating strike, they lacked a Plan B.

Panic and confusion

Hardik Pandya has many talents but he is yet to show heart under pressure. When he has overs at his disposal to drag the team towards respectability. Neither in the 2019 World Cup semifinal nor on Sunday. In both games, his pattern was the same: plod along and then perish. He is still at his best in the last few overs. India’s stubbornness with his selection is somewhat puzzling, when – forget not bowling – he hasn’t even been in the best of batting form in the Indian Premier League. Not a fault of age but whimsical stubbornness, which also showed in the No.4 fiasco at the 2019 World Cup.

Of the personnel at hand, one batsman has shown such fire to throw a counterpunch at a dominant opposition. Suryakumar Yadav has displayed in the past that he has the ability to trust himself, but he was injured. Revisit India’s opening game against Pakistan and Yadav’s flicked six off Shaheen Shah Afridi when the latter had his tail up. Or his 75 not out off 42 balls against Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL last year, filled with sparkling shots and a long stare down at the RCB skipper, Kohli himself.

Ishan Kishan is too young for any label to be thrust upon him, but sending him ahead of Rohit Sharma in a match like this wasn’t exactly wise. But when you have a coterie of heads in the team management – from MS Dhoni to Ravi Shastri, from Kohli to Sharma himself – a half-baked theory can slip through the chaos.

It stems from the top

It was obvious that India were punished for their timidity, both in their batting approach and thought process. And the captain can’t absolve himself of the blame. He too traded his boldness for a cautiously-pragmatic approach.

Kohli began with five consecutive dot balls before he got off the mark with a single. He was clearly struggling for rhythm. Sample this: a length ball from Adam Milne nipped back from outside off, Kohli tried to clip it through mid-wicket but could only manage a thick inside edge. He became cagey, especially after Rohit’s dismissal, looking to survive rather than take the attack to the opposition. Kohli, in prime, would have tried to wrest the initiative, target a bowler. But he has been going through an elongated form slump across formats and getting stuck against New Zealand’s spin wasn’t a case in isolation. Over the last one-and-a-half years, his strike rate against slow bowlers is 102. And when a tossed-up leg-break came well outside off, Kohli chose to drag it across the line instead of tonking it over cover, as he usually would have done.

Rishabh Pant’s apparent fear of failure didn’t help his captain either. Considered the team’s X-factor, Pant seems to be carrying the excess baggage of a torrid summer in England, where Ollie Robinson and company sucked the confidence out of his batting, albeit in the longest format. With Kohli struggling to get into the groove, it was imperative for Pant to impose himself on New Zealand’s bowling, something that Dhoni did in the 2011 World Cup final against Sri Lanka. But he plodded along and it wasn’t surprising that he missed to connect with a swipe across the line.

Also, nobody, unlike Faf du Plessis’ batting in the IPL final about a fortnight ago, dared to take a game-changing approach.

From Faf’s playbook

Memory is still fresh of the IPL final and the way du Plessis dismantled Kolkata Knight Riders’ spinners. When the game was hanging in the balance, the South African grabbed it by the lapels. After a good start, CSK had a fallow phase, when Sunil Narine and Varun Chakravarthy were pulling things back for KKR. Ruturaj Gaikwad, too, got out during that phase. Du Plessis could have embraced pragmatism by seeing out the next few overs, but he attacked Shakib Al Hasan instead, hitting a six to regain the initiative. That’s when CSK wrested control of the game.

Shoaib Malik did something similar against Afghanistan at the T20 World Cup only a few days ago. With Rashid Khan making inroads and harassing Babar Azam, Malik took the attack to the leg-spinner with a six at a time when his team was going at less than seven runs per over and searched for a spark.

Clarity of thought has been missing from India’s camp. From Kohli talking about opening with Rohit at the ICC event – he expressed his desire to do so after the home T20I series against England earlier this year – to Kishan eventually partnering KL Rahul at the top, India’s World Cup planning rode on inconsistency. Captain and coach serving their notice period during a global event didn’t help matters either. In the end, they succumbed to timidity.

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