Even as the Indian team – embarking on a new era under coach Rahul Dravid – sauntered to a 3-0 T20I series victory over New Zealand in Kolkata on Sunday, the Black Caps could afford more than a slight chuckle at how recent jostles between the two teams have panned out. In bilateral contests over the past couple of years, India have completed two successive clean sweeps: 5-0 in New Zealand in 2020 and this. But as New Zealand would gleefully point out, their only win in this period came during the just-concluded T20 World Cup when passage to the knockouts hinged on this encounter. New Zealand won and eventually made the final while India headed for an early exit.
It begs the question: how much importance can you ascribe to these bilateral series wins and concerted planning ahead of next year’s T20 World Cup in Australia?
The question is all the more pertinent after Australia’s title-winning exploits at the T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As is well-documented by now, their lead-up to the event was as wretched as it can get. Five successive series losses, including 1-4 hammerings at the hands of West Indies and Bangladesh just months before the big-ticket event. A number of players were tried and they seemed as far off from the trophy as the geographical distance between Australia and UAE. The spate of poor results obviously meant that unlike West Indies, England and India, Australia were barely discussed as contenders for the T20 World Cup.
But Australia’s listless prelude to the World Cup was rather misleading. Owing to a combination of circumstances and Australia’s inclination to rest players, their strongest XI hadn’t been on the park for those seemingly deflating losses in the Caribbean and Bangladesh. When the likes of David Warner, Glenn Maxwell, Marcus Stoinis, Steve Smith and Pat Cummins duly returned for the World Cup, the Australians were once again puffing their chests and not looking as lightweight as they had done during those bilateral meets.
The West Indians, too, have done similarly in the past. During their utter dominance in the shortest format over the last decade, which included two ICC titles, they did not often play together during bilateral series. Run-ins with the board was one factor while in-demand stars preferring T20 leagues over international commitments was another. Their consistency from series to series might have suffered as a result, but it didn’t hinder them at the ICC events.
Back to our earlier question then. How much do carefully crafted plans and a healthy run of results going into a marquee T20 event really matter? As per Australia assistant coach Sridharan Sriram, a good stretch of results isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, but he believes proper planning is still of essential importance in the shortest format.
Of core squads and back-up plans
In Australia’s case, he puts the seemingly muddled choice of line-ups before the World Cup down to an unfavourable set of circumstances. With the Australian players involved in the IPL in India in May having to undergo almost a month of quarantine before returning to their homes during the virulent second wave of Covid, all of them were excused from the national team’s T20 commitments in July and August. The results took a pounding and few positives emerged, barring Mitchell Marsh staking an irresistible claim at No. 3. But the confidence within the dressing room remained intact.
“Externally, Australia were not a fancied side. But internally, once we had our full squad available, we knew that we are a very good team. We knew the skill set of each and every player and the roles they had to play. We were very confident going into the tournament,” Sriram says.
Contrary to what many would have believed before the edition, Sriram informs that they had identified their core group as early as a year prior to the World Cup.
“I think you need to have a core squad in mind. Everything is not going to be ideal. You have got to constantly keep building back-ups for each spot so that if somebody goes down or doesn’t have form, he can always be replaced. For this World Cup, we had the core squad ready around 12 months ago. We knew Warner and Aaron Finch are going to open. We knew Smith will be there. We knew how we are going to use Maxwell. We knew Stoinis and Matthew Wade were going to be our finishers. We had the skeleton of the squad in mind. It is then building back-ups for different roles and hoping everybody stays fit. We were able to work on our bench strength during the West Indies and Bangladesh series,” says the 45-year-old Sriram.
The very nature of T20 cricket, where individual brilliance can have more of a say because of the shorter duration, also plays a part.
“Even though these players had not played together for the last 6-8 months before the T20 WC, Warner Smith, Cummins, Maxwell and Stoinis have been around for quite a few years now. These guys are good enough to come in and execute their individual skills. As much as cricket is a team game, it is a one-on-one contest between bat and ball. As long as they know the role and have the skill, they can execute on any given day,” the former India player adds.
Former India bowling coach Bharat Arun, whose last assignment with the Men in Blue was the T20 World Cup, echoes Sriram. “Every format requires planning. Before a World Cup, you have enough bilateral series to try all the players who have a possibility of playing in the World Cup so that they have enough experience.”
There is a message in this for India ahead of the next World Cup. Start identifying the personnel that will form the core of the squad in a year’s time in Australia, but don’t be wary of trying out different options in bilateral duels even if it comes at the cost of losing a few series.