But this 20-over tournament, touted as the ideal preparatory climax to the T20 World Cup in Australia next month, has come as a timely wake-up call, a potential stepping-stone to greater global honours that have been elusive since the Champions Trophy triumph in England in 2013.
Rohit Sharma, India’s unflappable skipper, brushed off concerns over the death overs' bowling and the pitfalls of continual experimentation, but what else can one realistically expect? For him to turn up at a media conference and pan his colleagues for the lack of application?
To state the obvious and point to the lack of penetration with the new ball, specifically? To question the shot-selection of several of his mates, not least the gifted Rishabh Pant and the well-backed Deepak Hooda? To castigate the experienced Bhuvneshwar Kumar for his less than impeccable displays two matches in a row, towards the backend of a chase?
To his credit, after India’s six-wicket loss to an inspired Sri Lanka on Tuesday night that has all but spelled the death-knell for his side, Rohit refused to hide behind excuses.
He acknowledged a problem in the multi-team competitions as opposed to in bilateral series – India is coming off impressive T20I series against England and West Indies – and said the team wasn’t unaware of that lacuna, but his general message was: Keep the faith, we know what we are doing.
The problem isn’t in the planning or clarity of thought, it’s in the execution. That’s scant consolation for millions of fans increasingly accustomed to daring to dream, only for those dreams to be shattered into a million heart-breaking pieces.
The Sri Lanka game was the perfect example of how not to construct a T20 game. India started and finished poorly with the bat and with the ball; extended periods of ordinary cricket were so pronounced that pockets of batting and bowling brilliance towards the middle stages of both innings simply counted for nothing in the final analysis.
But it’s worth remembering that these are but two losses, and that pressing the panic button now is neither advisable nor useful.
Rahul’s Stuttering Comeback
The best of the batting riches are ensconced in this Asia Cup squad, and yet India has repeatedly underachieved with KL Rahul, particularly, in serious need of quick, big, confidence-infusing runs.
There is no denying the Karnataka opener’s pedigree, but he has been out of competitive cricket for far too long for anyone to expect him to turn up and kick on as if he was never away.
Apart from a brief flourish against Pakistan on Sunday, Rahul has looked a pale shadow of the commanding, imposing figure he cuts at the crease in full flight.
With numerous other options available at the top of the order, including such candidates as Pant and Hooda, Rahul must start pulling his weight with just a handful of games left to the World Cup.
The decision to play Hooda ahead of Karthik, and that too at 7, might appear baffling from the outside, and not without justification.
Rohit spoke of the comfort of knowing that there is a sixth bowling option and that he could not employ Hooda’s off-spin because the situation didn’t quite allow that.
That might be so because at the end of the day, it’s essential that the captain is invested in and confident of the resources at his disposal. But if he was going to bat only at five-down, then half the battle was already lost because most of Hooda’s successes have come at 4.
India plucked Dinesh Karthik out of a three-year international hiatus in June so that he could specifically grab the finisher’s garb lying untouched since the halcyon days of Mahendra Singh Dhoni a few years back.
Karthik’s pyrotechnics for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in that role precipitated his return to the national colours, whereas Hooda has little to zero experience of manning a position with the most unique requirements.
India might believe that their brand of ‘Total Cricket’ should keep everyone prepared to play anywhere, in any situation, but with the bigger goal imminent, it might be more prudent to stick with Karthik and give him as many opportunities as possible in that most pivotal slot and translate his franchise success to the international level.
Fuse Fearlessness With Smarts
The other evening, head coach Rahul Dravid stressed the need to combine fearlessness at the top of the order with a certain smartness and intelligence too.
India’s rejigged approach to T20 batting hasn’t bordered on the reckless, but a few signs of fraying are occasionally beginning to crop up and they need to be stitched back in place if the damage is not to be more substantial and long-term.
If the Asia Cup were to be an end in itself, the knives would be a lot sharper and the censure plenty more acerbic, but, for now, the benefit of the doubt will be with the batsmen in the hope that by the time the World Cup comes around, they have struck the perfect balance between adventurism and street-smartness.
India is undoubtedly missing Jasprit Bumrah, but that shouldn’t be decisive. The leader of the bowling group is a massive threat with the new ball, in the middle overs and particularly at the death where his astonishing changes of pace and his propensity to nail the yorker at will make him a heady, potent concoction.
No team can afford to be reliant on one individual alone and as recent results reiterate, India has a well-rounded, versatile unit with multiple skills jostling for impact. Again, it was in the execution of plans that India was found wanting.
The skipper might have put it down to ‘one or two bad days’, but one can stay rest assured that the tone and the message within the group will not be as non-confrontational.
Rohit might not be in-your-face like his predecessor, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and isn’t chary of reading the riot act when the situation so demands. This situation certainly does demand so, no matter whether India miraculously makes the final or not.
Rohit must, and most certainly will, demand answers, and greater consistency in performance from his team, as he is perfectly entitled to.
(R Kaushik is a Bengaluru-based freelance cricket writer with more than three decades of experience and 100 Test matches under his belt. He is the co-author of VVS Laxman's autobiography, 281 and Beyond, as well as GR Vishwanath's autobiography, Wrist Assured.)