Since the 2013 Champions Trophy final, India has not won a single ICC tournament. They have faltered in the 2014 World T20 final, 2015 World Cup semifinal, 2016 World T20 semifinal, 2017 Champions Trophy final and now this World Cup they have exited in the semifinal again.
There is a common thread in the way India’s losses in the ODI tournament knockouts and that is the failure of the numero uno batsman, Virat Kohli.
Same Old Story
In the 2015 semi-final, Kohli got out for 1, then in the 2017 Champions Trophy he was snapped up by Pakistan’s Mohammed Amir for 5 and against New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup semi-final he fell for 1.
All three times he fell to a left-armer whether it was Mitchell Johnson in the 2015 semifinal, Amir in 2017 or Trent Boult in the 2019 semi-final.
Like we have seen in the three ODI knockouts, the moment Kohli falls, the side sort of falters never to recover from the body blow.
The roots of this over reliance on Kohli and to a large extent Rohit Sharma in this tournament can be traced back to the last time India won an ICC men’s tournament in the 2013.
Since that triumph, India’s top three viz Sharma, Kohli and Dhawan have established a vice like grip on the fortunes of the batting in ODI cricket. They have chased down massive totals at home and away by scoring big hundreds. The rest of the line-up has just become a side show as a result.
First Amongst Equals
Till the 2013 Champions Trophy all three were at the same level like the rest of the batting line-up which did not result in any kind of reliance just on individuals.
Somewhere this consistent performance by these top three resulted in India’s top three in bilateral cricket, meant that the middle-order was never tested. We have had to pay dearly for that thrice and sadly for India all three times have been in knockout matches.
Somewhere questions must be asked if we attach too much importance to bilateral cricket thereby not letting players flower in pressure situations.
It certainly appears so because there is a defeatist mindset that creeps in the moment Kohli departs from the scene, like it happened at Manchester against New Zealand.
Pressure in the Game
You cannot win big tournaments with such a mindset. The fact that the middle-order is never allowed to settle results in Kohli faltering under pressure, because after all he is also human.
Somewhere down the line ,he also considers it his bounden duty to make it business as usual. But in knockout games it is never the same as in a league phase or bilateral cricket.
Kohli has put himself under too much pressure in the last six years, resulting in a complete muddle in the middle in this same phase. The fact that India has not won a major ICC crown in the shorter formats is therefore as much a reflection of Kohli’s inability to soak in pressure as it is on India’s soft underbelly in the middle.
Kohli’s poor returns in knockout games will surely come into focus in coming years and questions will be asked about it. We must also remember that even as far back as in the 2011 edition which India won, Kohli’s returns were meagre in the knockout matches.
So it is a cross that he has to bear till India reverses its tournament form. India’s overall form in ICC men’s tournaments is stupendous, but if you lose the match that matters then the league phase form does not really count for much.
Throughout the league phase of this World Cup too, Kohli was consistent but never set Thames on fire. He did not score his customary ODI hundreds, yet India was winning because Sharma was bearing the responsibility.
It was expected that he would come good finally in the knockout game with a hundred, but it was not to be.
Last ICC Crown
The last time Kohli top-scored for India in an ICC ODI tournament knockout game was in the 2013 Champions Trophy when he made 43 in a low-scoring match against England in the final.
India won that game and that day, followed by his wild celebrations has never been repeated.
That win in 2013 was also the last time India won an ICC title under Mahendra Singh Dhoni. We may or may not have seen the last of him in ODI matches, but Dhoni left a lot to be desired in this ongoing tournament.
He slowed down like never before and struggled to get going against spin.
What Is Dhoni’s Role?
He needed to have taken more of the charge in the semi-final too.
He preferred to play dot balls, and not milk the bowling for singles. That put enormous pressure on Ravindra Jadeja. In the slog for example, Dhoni played a few dot balls and a few quiet overs, which resulted in the asking rate increasing.
Perhaps if Dhoni too had taken charge, not in terms of striking boundaries, but in terms of keeping the scoring rate going, then Jadeja may not have had to take a chance.
Dhoni’s entire campaign was a blur. It appeared at times that he was batting from memory and not really taking charge of the batting.
He was given a specific role as Kohli kept insisting of controlling the later stages of the innings. But he always fell short, because he either ran out of partners or he ran out of ideas.
It was most evident today that it required a belligerent Jadeja to shake Dhoni from his stupor, else we would have had more of the pat ball cricket from him.
Times Are Changing
Dhoni’s strategy of leaving it too late to finish has always been a questionable strategy and this World Cup laid bare the inadequacy of that thinking. A younger Dhoni would have been able to make up for the lost time, but not this Dhoni who is already on borrowed time.
On the biggest stage when India needed their only two survivors-Kohli and Dhoni- from their last World Cup triumph in 2011 to come good, they faltered.
Dhoni will no doubt be hailed as valiant hero and Kohli will be feted for his consistent run.
But questions must be asked and now is the most opportune time to do so. Are we simply not good enough to win major white ball tournaments? We can wait 18 months for the answer.
(Chandresh Narayanan is a former cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for ICC and the Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of World Cup Heroes, Cricket Editorial consultant, professor and cricket TV commentator.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)