The Flexi XI: Making Sense Of Rahul Dravid’s Experiments
Coach Rahul Dravid is under unprecedented attack from cricket’s veterandom. Unprecedented because the ultimate gentleman in the gentleman’s game is rarely spoken about harshly. The reason for it is he is experimenting too much with the Indian cricket team. The changes in the playing XI in the West Indies look whimsical and bereft of purpose. Despite all the chopping and changing, he is nowhere close to providing a glimpse of the final squad for the big event in Australia. The veterans, active on all kinds of media, cannot fathom why their favourites are dropped or not allowed fixed slots.
Dravid, being Dravid, would of course offer a dead bat to all criticism. He would keep doing what he feels is in the best interest of the team. But what could be the logic behind his experiments? Here are a few points to consider.
THE POWERPLAY OVERS
The first six overs in a Twenty20 contest are critical. The momentum achieved in this phase sets the tone for the inning. With field restrictions in place, no team would like to end up in lower 40s or less; a decent score thereon becomes an uphill task. Teams would not mind losing a couple of wickets to maximise the score – say in the region of 60s – in powerplay overs. Now, who are the best bets in the batting unit to achieve the target? Power hitters who can handle the new ball, obviously. A good idea is to expose them to new ball attacks. Suryakumar Yadav scored a brilliant 76 off 44 balls with a strike rate of 170 plus in the second ODI against the West Indies yesterday. That should put to rest all criticism of the team management for experimenting too much with an exciting talent like him and not allowing him a fixed slot in the batting order. The team tried Rishabh Pant in the opening slot too. Teams looking for an explosive start must keep experimenting. Runs are what matter in the end.
THE QUESTION OF FIXED SLOTS
The idea of batters getting slotted in positions in the batting order works fine in Tests and to a degree in one-dayers. With the slot comes a loose role description. For example, if the first two wickets fall quickly, number three and four have to stabilise the inning and take the team out of the danger zone. They should be good enough players to negotiate the swinging and seaming new ball, as good as openers. In both formats, batters have time to settle down in their roles. The balls they consume while at it is not of much significance. Not so the case in T20. There’s hardly time to settle down when a few dot balls can impact the game. So whichever batting position you are in, the job is to go hitting from the word go. In this scenario, slots are meaningless. Moreover, it’s likely that a few quick wickets will be down in the initial overs in the quest for runs. So it’s ideal that batters coming down the order are ready to face the new ball.
NO FORMULA FORMAT
T20 is a format that doesn’t render itself to set formulaic solutions. It requires thinking on the go and improvising according to the situation. It calls for mental flexibility. A team, considering the nature of the format, can be in any situation in a given game – from 70 for no loss in eight overs to 125 for six in 16 overs, for example. Batters need to be in a state of readiness to deliver in all situations. India is in a position of advantage at this point because it possesses talent and maturity in the middle order to wriggle out of complicated positions. The likes of Hardik Pandya, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Dinesh Karthik and even Axar Patel have proved their ability on several occasions. The key is to keep players in readiness in all positions and situations and keep the line-up flexible to meet challenges. Any experiment in this direction is welcome.
THE LUXURY OF PLENTY
India sits on a reservoir of cricketing talent. The bench strength is impressive. Indian Premier League has thrown up a breed of cricketers which is fearless and mentally equipped to face tough challenges. For every position in the playing XI, there are more than a couple of equally gifted competitors. The pool of talent cannot be allowed to stay idle. The team management has to create opportunities for it. That is one reason why we see so many changes in the team and different sets of players in every match. It helps that the West Indies tour is ideally placed before the ICC T20 World Cup in Australia. It not only keeps several players in a state of match readiness but also helps the team management to draw the contours of the final squad for the big event two months away.
REPLACEMENT FOR BIGGIES
Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and KL Rahul appear certainties for the Australia tour. Rohit is the captain, hence irremovable; Virat brings loads of experience and Rahul is a proven asset in the format. But the first two have been in indifferent form from the IPL days and Rahul is yet to be match-fit after staying away from cricket for health reasons. The team has to keep replacements for at least two of them ready. That explains why Shreyas Iyer is still in the mix in West Indies, and why many experiments are happening at the top of the order. In the event of the biggies failing, there would be others to fill in without a hitch.
So the coach-captain duo Dravid and Rohit can go on experimenting. Nobody should mind till they are getting the results.