Indian players during a break | AFP
So Indian cricket fans worst fear came true in those twilight moments in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. New Zealand defeated Afghanistan, and in the process, India joined the latter to exit the World T20 championship in the group stage itself. The dream was for Afghanistan to beat New Zealand, which if it had happened would have pushed up India's cause based on the net run rate (NRR), and a handsome win over Namibia next would have cemented its semi-final spot. One is reminded of the proverb, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Indeed if only India, which was considered a pre-tournament favourite, had planned its campaign on a better mode, it would not have faced this perhaps laughable hope of an Afghanistan win over New Zealand for succour. Not that it was not possible. In this T20 format, which many believe can be considered a lottery, anything could happen. Did we not see the downfall of defending champion West Indies but New Zealand is a different proposition all over. A team that today is probably the best set, having twice been in the ODI world cup final and just lately beaten India in the inaugural World Test Championship, New Zealand is not a side to lose consistency. Not when it had someone like Kane Williamson at the helm. Williamson has excelled in his captain's role and that was there for all to see. Fittingly he was there in the middle to ensure New Zealand got past Afghanistan with the expected ease.
Ravindra Jadeja's hilarious reply to a journalist at a press conference then returned to haunt the Indian team! Asked what would happen should New Zealand beat Afghanistan, the man-of-the-match against Scotland, had quipped “we will pack and leave!”. After the fine show against Scotland and earlier against Afghanistan, anyone, why Jadeja alone, should be pardoned in thinking that progress for India would come through despite all the odds. This is where the perils of a weak start hit the Indians badly. If the much-publicised encounter against Pakistan turned topsy turvy for India, then the defeat at the hands of New Zealand virtually put the team on the mat. The wake up from there though impressive, with facile wins over Afghanistan and Scotland which pushed India up the table based on NRR, the effort had come too late. Like the Diwali cracker show, the brief sparkle was entertaining and even engrossing, but darkness set in virtually soon after. Indeed what went wrong would remain a mystery. As it happens in cricket, considering its profile in India, theories will float, but the ground reality is that with some of the best batters in the world, the team as a whole failed as a unit. What is more, poor Virat Kohli, always the one to be at the receiving end being the captain, will have the mortification of signing off from his leadership role empty-handed. Kohli is set to step down from captaincy after this WC campaign.
Not only Kohli, whose batting prowess did not get manifested in the Gulf, but the head coach Ravi Shastri and his team of Bharat Arun (bowling coach) and R. Sridhar (fielding coach) will move over. Change after all is a constant factor and Indian cricket has to move ahead. After all, the next T20 world cup in Australia is just next year, and fresh ideas and fresh moves have to come in. Still, it must be said, India until the Gulf disaster had a wonderful run which was why there was so much halo around this side and its capabilities. None can set aside the team's back-to-back series win in Australia and the grand show in England and home, not to forget reaching the Test championship final. For all this, India did not get to grab a single ICC trophy between 2017 and 2021 and that will remain the one big blot in India's recent cricket history. Indeed the expectations were high in this T20 WC, particularly when it seemed that most players who had featured in the IPL would have gotten used to the Gulf conditions. But then many of them have been playing non-stop since May and added to that this 'bubble-stay' protocol, all of which could add to the stress factor and affect performance. Whatever may be the reason, whatever has happened has happened, and it is best to look ahead and work to set the right things.
With a new head coach in place in Rahul Dravid, whose work with the National Cricket Academy has been hailed and new captain to come in, there could not have been a better way to make a fresh start. Then again, with so much cricket on view these days in various versions, would not Indian cricket be better off with more than one national team suiting the occasion. Bowling coach Arun talks of having a different set of bowlers for each format. Thanks to the IPL, the pool of talents have only gone up and exciting names are waiting to get the nod of recognition. The just-concluded IPL edition itself threw up new players like Ruturaj Gaekwad, Venkatesh Iyer, Harshal Patel, Bishnoi, Deepak Chahar, Avesh Khan and the like. Surely there is more to come and the ongoing Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament itself is bound to reveal some. Perhaps the debacle in the Gulf could be a lesson for new thinking and who knows it would not be long before India is back, firing on all cylinders. There are enough engagements ahead to open up this new chapter.