CHENNAI: With less than seven months to go for the 50-over World Cup, one thing is clear. The Indian team is trying to move away from the template that gave the side a lot of success in bilateral cricket under the old regime. Muscle memory does mean that, on occasions, batters have looked to rebuild rather than stay true to the new guidelines (the decider against Australia at Chennai was a case in point). More aerial shots are being played. More batters are losing their wickets to catches in the deep. More risks are being taken in the powerplay.
It directly explains why a batter like Suryakumar Yadav — somebody currently with no floor but potentially a massive ceiling in this form of the sport — is being persisted with under this regime despite accumulating only 270 across 17 innings since the time coach Rahul Dravid and captain Rohit Sharma joined hands for the first time (West Indies at Ahmedabad last February) in ODIs.
Nowhere else is this change more prominent than in Sharma himself. Since the beginning of last year, the opener is facing almost 10 fewer balls per innings (down from 44 to 35). Normally, that’s not a good sign. But his strike rate is up by 20 (110 from 90). So, the role he has given for himself is quite clear. Take advantage of the field restrictions and look to set the tempo early. One may wonder if it’s the best use of a batter who has three doubles in this format but one cannot deny the fact that among all resources available to this side right now, the 35-year-old is the batter best equipped to play this way.
A natural stroke-maker, he was never shy of trying to use the space above the fielder in the powerplay under the previous regime. Hence, it’s not a surprise to note the kind of dismissals he has had in the last few ODIs. At Chennai, a pull shot found deep square leg. In Visakhapatnam, an attempted expansive drive found slip via an outside edge. At Indore against New Zealand, an across the line swipe rearranged the stumps (only century in the time period). In Hyderabad against the same opponents, he tried to go over the bowler’s head. You get the drift, right? The end result is he may stop getting those daddy 100s but there could be enough value in the next best opportunity (known as opportunity cost in economics). India being 80/1 after 10 overs as opposed to 60 for no loss.
This change in Sharma’s approach allows India a few things, even in a World Cup year. It gives the batting unit, right from Virat Kohli, the luxury of getting to do what they do best, especially when they are new to the crease. Not dotting up too many balls but also preferring to take singles and converting ones into twos before exploding at the back end. Such a strategy is fraught with danger — Kohli and KL Rahul showed why when they were dismissed looking to take the game deep on Wednesday but Sharma’s change at the top buys the others some time.
“He’s someone who has got that game right,” Dravid had said when explaining about Sharma’s batting during an ODI series against New Zealand this January. “An all-round game and you can’t really think of a kind of bowling you can bowl to him. If you bowl fast and short, he will take you down and he will take down spinners. He plays swing well. So, he’s got a really good, complete game. So, yeah he has been a fantastic player for India and he has been batting well for us even in the last few games;... it’s great to have him play the way he is.” In a World Cup year, their captain may have to continue playing these kind of innings so as to allow the others to breathe.