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India need to rethink jaded T20 template

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Match Day: Lack of boundaries, sixes cost India (2:40)

West Indies hit 20 fours and 11 sixes in their innings compared to India's 16 fours and four sixes (2:40)

It is the 17th over of India's innings against West Indies, and MS Dhoni has just taken a walk across his stumps to paddle a low full-toss from Carlos Brathwaite wide of short fine leg. He meets the ball a long way outside off stump and beats the fielder easily. It is as if he has played this shot all his life.

A lot of batsmen around the world have played this shot all their lives. Given the state of the game, and given the field set by West Indies, this is a perfectly logical shot to play. But this is MS Dhoni, and this is a moment that makes you rub your eyes and cross-check what you've seen with everyone else in the vicinity. Has MS Dhoni just paddled a ball past short fine leg? How many years has it been since he last played such a shot? Has he ever played this shot before?

It is also, perhaps, the first time that any Indian batsman has played this shot all tournament. It has taken until the semi-final stage for this to happen.

Of late, India have been quite vocal about their approach to Twenty20 batting: taking time to gauge the conditions, not taking undue risks, and playing largely cricketing shots. They do not move around the crease to exploit the V behind the wicket, they do not switch-hit or reverse-sweep, and they do not hit across the line until the slog overs.

After India's seven-wicket loss in the semi-final, Dhoni even called it the "Indian brand of cricket", when he was asked how difficult it had been for India to set themselves a target, knowing they were playing a power-packed West Indies team on a flat pitch. West Indies chased down 193 with a flurry of boundaries, getting there with seven wickets in hand.

"As I said, we have to keep reviewing [our desired first-innings total]," Dhoni said. "What our strength is, if you see the Indian brand of cricket, we take one or two overs, we see how the wicket is behaving, and according to that we see 'okay, next five overs, let's do this', 'at the end of this over, if we have not lost too many wickets, this is where we should be'.

"What happens is, you evaluate every three-four overs, at times in two overs also, depending on who is bowling. And that has been our strength. We always get a score that is a par-plus score. Right from the start if you think about the big hitters and start looking as 210 as a good score, you may end up getting 160 or 170 and that may not be enough on a wicket like this.

"So you always look to back your strengths at the same time, go for a par-plus score, don't go for a score that is an absolute score. What we have seen in this format is that nothing is a safe score. We have seen 220, 230 also getting chased, so depending on your strength and depending on the wicket, we say this is the score and make sure we reach there."

It is a perfectly logical way of going about an innings. It might ensure you post 192 eight times out of 10, rather than 210 five times and 160 five times. However, it also leaves you susceptible to a chase such as West Indies' on Thursday. And given the simple arithmetic of T20, where a batting side has 10 wickets to exhaust over 20 overs, it is perhaps counterproductive to bat with such a risk-averse approach. On Thursday, India lost their second wicket in the 16th over of their innings. The batsman dismissed at that point was Ajinkya Rahane, who had scored 40 off 35 balls, having only hit two fours.

Dhoni praised Rahane's contribution, saying he had given India a solid platform from where they could "launch and score those extra 10-15 runs in the last few overs". Dhoni said Rahane had done "what he does best" and had been picked ahead of Shikhar Dhawan for precisely this reason.

By normal cricketing standards, Rahane played an excellent innings. West Indies made him work hard for his runs, and he stuck it out, ran hard between the wickets, and scored as quickly as possible while not taking undue risks. But is that necessarily a good way to bat in T20s?

While India stretched themselves to their limits and scored 192 by playing cricket, West Indies chased it down easily by playing Twenty20, clearing their front legs from ball one and hitting through and across the line with abandon. West Indies' task was made simpler by the impact of dew, and because India's bowlers fed them plenty of bad balls, but they would have batted the same way regardless. It felt at times like a clash of ideologies - cricket versus Twenty20.

It is a bit of a stretch to call the current Indian side's risk-averse approach the "Indian brand of cricket". India have had their share of batsmen who have broken the mould in one way or another, and Dhoni, when he first arrived, was just that kind of batsman. If bowlers around the world have had to rethink the value of yorkers at the death, it is partly because of Dhoni, who would sit deep in his crease and hit them for six with a miraculous whip of his bottom hand. And before his genius for calculation subsumed his genius for instinctive hitting, he would play these shots right from the time he walked out to bat.

After India's T20 series loss to South Africa last October, Dhoni himself acknowledged that his calculated approach might not suit T20s as well as it does ODIs. "Personally," he said, "I feel I use a bit too much of my brain in this format."

Calling the safety-first approach the "Indian brand of cricket", perhaps, was Dhoni's way of deflecting attention from the real reason for adopting it: that the shaky form of the batsmen occupying numbers four and five - for the most part Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh, in recent months - would leave India under far too much pressure if they were to play lower-percentage cricket and lose early wickets. India's openers failed to take off right through the Super 10 stage, and they only scraped through to the semi-finals because of Virat Kohli, Dhoni himself, the bowlers, and Bangladesh gifting them a crucial win.

"While India stretched themselves to their limits and scored 192 by playing cricket, West Indies chased it down easily by playing Twenty20, clearing their front legs from ball one and hitting through and across the line with abandon"

Yuvraj stuck around with Kohli in tense chases against Pakistan and Australia, but it was clear to see he was a long way past his best. Raina made one decent contribution - a jittery 23-ball 30 against Bangladesh that highlighted his discomfort against the short ball - and failed to get past 10 in his other three innings. Neither, in short, gave India's top order any confidence that they could go out and play their shots from ball one.

It would have been unfortunate for India had they only discovered during the World T20 that Yuvraj was no longer the Yuvraj of old or that Raina could be vulnerable against high-quality bowling or in difficult conditions. But that was not the case. Yuvraj had come into the team after two years, at 34, having been dropped following the 2014 World T20 final. The selectors, meanwhile, had left Raina out of India's last ODI squad and picked him only for the T20s, hardly a vote of confidence in a cricketer who has played over 200 ODIs.

That the selectors stuck by Raina despite not being convinced by his 50-overs game, and that they recalled Yuvraj after such a long time out of the team, suggested either that they felt there were no other options, or that the other options were too untested to throw into such a big event. If the latter was the case, then the selectors only had themselves to blame for trying out precious few young batsmen in limited-overs cricket over the last couple of years.

Given how much credit the IPL gets for "producing" or "discovering" Indian talent, it is curious that none of India's top six at the World T20 made it on that basis. Even Manish Pandey, who has an IPL century and a match-winning 94 in an IPL final, only got his chance seven years after his first-class debut, after building a solid body of work in the longest format.

The selectors have had no qualms in picking bowlers and allrounders based on their IPL performances. Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya and Pawan Negi can all be termed IPL finds. Even Ashish Nehra, who made a comeback at 36, after nearly five years out of international cricket, kept himself in the selectors' eye only because of the IPL.

But they have been rather more conservative while selecting batsmen, even for the shortest format. Since the start of 2014, the only batsmen they have given ODI debuts to have been Kedar Jadhav - who only came into the reckoning after scoring over 1000 runs in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy season - Pandey, and Gurkeerat Singh - who has a fairly ordinary IPL record, but enjoyed an excellent 50-overs season for India A, last year. The only batsmen they have capped in T20Is in that time are Ambati Rayudu - who has been around since 2001-02 - Jadhav, Pandey and Sanju Samson. Of that lot, only Samson can be termed an IPL product. And he only got one game, against Zimbabwe, before being dropped.

All this while, the selectors have shown great reluctance to blood a generation of young batsmen with new-age T20 techniques and excellent first-class records. Karun Nair is a brilliant exponent of the reverse-sweep, Shreyas Iyer upsets bowlers' lengths by taking stance outside his crease or deep within it, Suryakumar Yadav plays the scoop over short fine leg from the moment he steps into the crease, and Deepak Hooda hits bigger sixes than most Indian batsmen. All have been important cogs in their IPL teams, and all have 40-plus first-class averages, with Nair and Iyer averaging over 50. All are aged between 20 and 25.

The 2016 World T20 could have been a breakthrough event for one or two of these batsmen, just as it was for Bumrah, who showed composure beyond his years while bowling at the death, or Pandya, who, though still raw and wayward with the ball, showed glimpses of the exciting allrounder he could become. Instead, India's batting followed a jaded pattern forced on them by conservative selections, and was held together by a modern great in otherworldly form. With a new season of the IPL only a week away, it is perhaps time for India to tear up the old template and finally, belatedly, rejuvenate their limited-overs game.