There was be a subdued buzz around the India-Australia T20I series that ended on Sunday in Bengaluru. Deemed as what could be India’s shot at avenging a hurtful ODI World Cup final loss against Australia, albeit in a different format, most of the players, from either side, who were part of the tournament, were rested. India had only three World Cup members with Shreyas Iyer having joined for the final two matches. Australia, on the other hand, had seven initially, six of whom departed around the third game, leaving Travis Head, the World Cup final hero, as the only player who stayed back. The dearth of big name players dampened the aura around the series. Yet, the contest had its own significance with the 2024 T20 World Cup just seven months away.
India, like most other teams, don’t have many games scheduled ahead of the World Cup, slated to be hosted by the West Indies and the United States starting June 4. 11 international matches is all India have as part of their fixture for the tournament which includes a three-match contest against South Africa starting next week followed by as many matches against Afghanistan in January. Hence, every single game is step in the direction towards finding a core15-member squad which could aim to end their long-standing ICC trophy drought.
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With less matches scheduled, you would want all your best resources at hand right from the start, but with selectors opting to give 12 of their ODI World Cup squad members a much-needed break, the fringe options were put to use with Suryakumar Yadav at the helm. The Australia series was hence a chance for these players to make a case for themselves for the World Cup team and India did find a few positives in their thrilling 4-1 win. Suryakumar found his rhythm back after a quite ODI World Cup outing in the format he most cherishes while Iyer, who made his return to T20Is after almost a year, wrapped up the series with a crucial fifty. Openers Yashavi Jaiswal and Ruturaj Gaikwad along with Jitesh Sharma and Ishan Kishan showed a glimpse of their excellence as well while the cynosure of India’s campaign was Rinku Singh, who strongly staked his claim both as a finisher and as a crucial middle-order option.
However, amid the run scoring, the six hitting, the centuries and the wins, there lied a blemish unexplored, much like the ODI World Cup, and former Australian cricketer Simon Katich was quick to point that out during his discussion on Jio Cinema ahead of the start of the fifth T20I at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium.
The factor that made India an invincible side at the start of the World Cup in October was the balance Hardik Pandya brought to the line-up. Unlike the 2010s, none of the top-order batters bowl in a white-ball game. With the advent of throwdowns in practice sessions and injury concerns, batters have stopped working on their bowling skill, leaving captains to rely more on genuine all-rounders to strike a balance in the line-up. With Hardik being India’s only top fast-bowling all-rounder, he automatically becomes the most crucial member in the XI, probably even ahead of the captain himself. Imagine, such was the problem surrounding it that a bowler of Mohammed Shami’s stature was forced to warm the bench in the early phases of the tournament.
However, a freak ankle injury for Hardik in the fourth game left India vulnerable. India quickly went back on to Plan B of getting Suryakumar and Shami in for a ruled-out Hardik and Shardul Thakur. And until the semifinal round, the supreme level of performances from the batters and the bowlers collectively left India’s issue almost forgotten before being exposed on the one night that mattered the most and it cost them the World Cup.
It wasn’t although a fresh lesson for the Indian side who had suffered the consequences of it in the 2021 T20 World Cup as well where Hardik had featured solely as a batter amid his underlying back injury which restricted his bowling role. And while it was expected of the management to take their first step towards rectifying it in the T20I series against Australia and finding a back-up for an injury-prone Hardik, they let go of the opportunity.
“Given the economy rate in the power play and the lack of success, I think they’ve all shown that they’ve got the skill sets to be successful in T20 cricket. Sometimes it’s just the temperament of dealing with the conditions and we’ve seen some flat wickets in this series. I think the only area of concern that Indian selectors might have is just is there a genuine all rounder in that top six. If something happens to Hardik or something like, you know, we haven’t seen Suryakumar Yadav use any of his top six to bowl, because the bottom five bowlers have all been very good. But in time, if one or two bowlers get targeted on any given night, it’s nice to have that 6th or 7th option to potentially just take a bit of heat out of the skipper’s circumstances out the middle,” Katich explained.
Through five matches against Australia, India picked only five bowling options. And with these bowlers justifying their role decently enough, captain Suryakumar never sought for an extra option. They could or rather should have at least tested Shivam Dube, a medium-pace bowling all-rounder, in one of the five games but he remained the only player not to get a nod against Australia. Dube, who bagged a spot in the side on the back of a stellar season of IPL 2023, has not been named in the South Africa T20I series either.
Fast-bowling all-rounders are a rarity. India may not get another Hardik in seven months, but they could at least take a step towards preparing a few as a back-up. Australia series was indeed a great opportunity for the management, but the wait now continues till the Afghanistan series in January before the proceedings head towards 2024 IPL.