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Are Indian Players Afraid of Failure From the Pressures of Expectations at ICC Tournaments?

After two disappointing matches, the Indian team came into its own in the T20 World Cup, doling out massive defeats to Afghanistan and Scotland to keep their hopes alive for a place in the semi-finals. All kinds of possibilities exist about which team from Group 2 will join Pakistan in the last four from among India, New Zealand and Afghanistan. The equation now is simple on one hand, highly intriguing on the other.

If New Zealand beat Afghanistan they are through. That’s the simplest solution to the situation. But if Afghanistan turn the tables on the Kiwis, and with wide enough margin to improve their Net Run Rate beyond India’s currently, they become an obstacle for Virat Kohli & Co to get into the semis. Assuming that India will beat Namibia!

While all this promises a thrilling three-way contest in the dying stages of the league stage of the tournament, there will be some remorse in the Indian camp at what might have been had they not performed so poorly against Pakistan and New Zealand earlier. The contrast between the timidity and apprehension shown in those matches, and the bionic performances against Afghanistan and Scotland was as stark as night and day.

No doubt the latter two teams don’t measure up to Pakistan and New Zealand in terms of cumulative talent and international experience. However, India’s utter pusillanimity in the opening games was shocking. The 10-wicket surrender to Pakistan, while unpalatable, could have been an aberration, but this was followed by the 8-wicket defeat to New Zealand. While it did not evoke the same disappointment and furore as the setback against the arch-rivals, it was actually a far worse performance.

Against the Kiwis, India made a staggeringly low 110. This was never going to be defendable on a reasonable pitch, however well India bowled. The first two matches yielded only two wickets, but the bigger letdown was the star-studded batting which fared dismally in both.

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Group 2 was on paper the easier one to be in. With one caveat. While there were three weak teams, the three stronger ones had to be wary of each other. A side that lost to the other two would be in imminent danger of being out of contention for a place in the semis directly. The only way in thereafter was tortuous, depending on many ifs and buts.

India fell into this hole losing to Pakistan, then New Zealand. Defeat in the first match stung the team so badly that it led to an ultra-defensive approach for the second, where opener Rohit Sharma, arguably the best white-ball batter in the world, was made to bat at no. 3.

This was a sign of trepidation, if not panic. It bolstered New Zealand’s confidence and did not help India any as three wickets were still lost in the powerplay. So stricken the batters seemed about taking risks that Ish Sodhi and Mitch Santner suffocated the middle and lower order, and India barely limped past the 100 mark.

There is hardly a need for further detail of matches against Pakistan and New Zealand which has left India in a precarious position currently, where they are dependent on Afghanistan beating New Zealand to give them a sliver of hope of reaching the semis. But what caused this is important to consider going ahead.

While India’s record in bilateral matches has been consistently topnotch – across formats – when it comes to ICC tournaments, it somehow becomes a struggle to cross the winning line. Since the 2013 Champions Trophy victory in England, India haven’t been able to win another title, despite being either no. 1 ranked in the world at that point in time or rated favourites for the tournament, as for instance the current World Cup.

In the 2015 and 2019 ODI World Cups, as well as the 2016 T20 WC, India lost in the semis. In the 2017 Champions Trophy, they were beaten by Pakistan in the final, and in the inaugural Test World Championship final earlier this year, Virat Kohli’s team, after a stellar run over the two-year period, were felled by New Zealand.

Much blame has accrued at the doorstep of Kohli the captain for this string of setbacks, but this is to a large extent misplaced. In 2015 and 2016, MS Dhoni was the captain. Moreover, Kohli’s record in bilateral contests – in any format, as batter and captain – is outstanding. While he must be made accountable, it must also be accepted that there have been few occasions when other players have performed in such crucial matches.

Is IPL Fatigue a Reason Behind India’s Poor Show?

Defeats against Pakistan and New Zealand in this tournament sparked off furious debate. Factors as wide-ranging as IPL fatigue, the trauma of being in bio-secure bubbles for almost a year, too many power centers (M S Dhoni was added as a mentor at the last minute), faulty selection, poor fitness of key players etc have all been touted as reasons for failure.

Some, or parts of all these reasons could have led to the poor performances. But none was so serious as to explain the early debacle. Players from all countries have had to go through these hardships, so that excuse becomes lame beyond a point.

One argument that is gaining ground is that a new template for T20, meaning a new set of players and a different approach, is needed. In effect an overhaul, the argument goes, highlighting what England have been able to achieve under Eoin Morgan.

This is not without merit, but there are counterexamples too. New Zealand, for instance, with a smaller pool of players to choose from, have a core group of 12-13 which is involved in all three formats and has performed excellently, losing the 2019 ODI World Cup virtually on a technicality, and winning the Test WC convincingly.

Fact is India, despite excellent talent resources, were thoroughly outplayed by Pakistan and New Zealand despite their pedigree and experience, which suggests that the major problem lies elsewhere. On the evidence in these matches, the players appeared hassled, almost afraid of failure from the pressures of expectations.

This was most pronounced in the match against New Zealand which led to a blunder in recasting the batting order, and an overall pusillanimous approach. In a big match, on the big occasion, the team was found wanting. Compare this with India beating Australia against all odds in consecutive series’ Down Under, in 2018 and 2020, and the difference between the team’s performance in bilateral and multi-nation contests becomes vivid.

What is at the core of this marked difference is difficult to put a finger on. But it is something that chief coach-in-waiting Rahul Dravid must put his mind immediately to, through inquiry and research, for India to get over this mental hump, as it were.

Meanwhile, India’s prospects in this World Cup hangs by a slender thread, dependent entirely on Afghanistan beating New Zealand for their match against Namibia on Monday to carry any meaning.

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