Paceman Zaheer is struggling, so are Sehwag and Gambhir, leaving skipper Dhoni in a spot of bother
After a fairytale run that culminated in Mahendra Singh Dhoni lifting the trophy in his first ever assignment as the Indian captain in the maiden edition of the World T20 in 2007, the subsequent tournaments of this extravaganza have been nothing short of disaster for the Jharkhandi.
Both in 2009 and 2010, held in England and the West Indies respectively, India didn’t manage to win a single Super Eight contest.
And barring the win against South Africa in St Lucia, rest of their first-phase successes across two tournaments have all come against minnows.
From an alleged rift in the dressing room to his batsmen’s inability to cope with the short-pitched stuff, Dhoni was saddled with headaches both on and off the field. The events in England and Caribbean would have disturbed even Dhoni, normally a composed character even under great strife.
As India look to shed the unpleasant past in the fourth edition of World T20 in Sri Lanka, they are burdened with fresh problems. The prolonged poor run of their openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir and the ineffectiveness of their pace spearhead Zaheer Khan, especially in the death, threatens to derail India’s aspirations of lifting the cup for the second time. Given how India are heavily dependent on good starts, both in batting and bowling, it’s an anomaly Dhoni would want to fix before it’s too late.
The build up to the tournament proper has been hardly encouraging, losing as they did against New Zealand at home and against Pakistan in a warm-up game despite amassing 185 exactly a week ago. Their patchy performance against Afghanistan in their Group ‘A’ opener a few days ago did nothing to mask their glaring inadequacies. While Sehwag and Gambhir perished early, Zaheer was treated with little respect by the unheralded but equally unperturbed Afghan batsmen. So much so that the left-arm seamer wasn’t handed the responsibility of defending 24 runs in the final over against Afghanistan after he leaked 16 runs in the 16th over. That honour went to Lakshmipathi Balaji who did the job with aplomb.
To take case of Zaheer first, for all his exploits in Test cricket across continents, his limited-overs form has been a bit up and down for his captain’s comfort, especially so in T20s. In his 14 T20 international appearances, Zaheer has taken 14 wickets with an economy rate of almost eight runs an over. Eight of those wickets, came in 2009 when he was at the peak of his career across all formats. Ravaged by injuries and advancing years, much of Zaheer’s utility in the shortest version has been on the wane.
While he is still irreplaceable in Tests, his presence in T20 has come in for increasing scrutiny. In his last five T20 internationals, from the tie against Afghanistan in the 2010 event to the contest in Colombo against same opponents last week, he has taken just three wickets at an average of 55.75 with an equally damning economy of 8.93. Of the five, India’s wins have come only against their Asian neighbours while losing to Australia, West Indies and New Zealand in between. Throw in his wicketless three overs against Pakistan in the practice game that went for 31 runs, Dhoni has a real problem to deal with.
Dhoni is already on record saying bowling has been a weaker link compared to batting and the fact that India are likely to play with seven batsmen compounds their problems when a bowler has an off day. “If you are playing with four bowlers and a part-timer and you know one bowler can have an off-day,” noted Dhoni. “But if that one becomes two then there is considerable amount of pressure as to how you manage the resources.
Whether to say yes on that (faith on Zaheer unshakeable) is difficult for me because we only have a few games on hand but I am hoping that the experienced cricketer that he is, he gets back and really works for us,” he reasoned.
Equally worrying, if not more, is the inability of Sehwag and Gambhir to stitch together meaningful partnerships. That said the Delhi duo’s contribution to India’s success across all three formats is unparalleled. It doesn’t need a cricket expert to educate us as to how devastating Sehwag will be if he gets going while Gambhir’s utility can be gauged by the fact that India’s last two major triumphs – in 2007 World T20 and the 2011 World Cup – have coincided with his purple patch. The southpaw was India’s highest scorer in South Africa in 2007 with 227 runs from six innings including three half-centuries while he was the second highest scorer in the 2011 World Cup win when he scored four half-centuries in nine games, including the 97 in the final. Even during the recent five-match ODI series against Sri Lanka, the Indian vice-captain rattled a century and two half-centuries, including an 88.
It’s, however, their lack of partnerships that is putting pressure on the batting line-up. In Sri Lanka they had 7, 31, 8 and 0-run associations in the first four ODIs, and 9 and 41 in the two T20 warm-up games and 15 against Afghanistan. The result is that Virat Kohli, their best batsman in the side at the moment, is walking in in the first or second over almost every other game.
It’s unkind to expect the youngster to soak up the pressure and deliver all the time, a situation reminiscent during Rahul Dravid’s hey day. Kohli himself was charitable with his openers. “In T20, you don’t need a start of 80-90; 40-50 is good enough. The kind of openers we have, when they get going, they will give us a very good start and at a very good pace.”
And India need them to do that very soon.