India's T20 World Cup Squad Should Include...

The point of this is not to publish the squad I’d want. There are several roughly equally good squads which are possible given the pool of players IND have available to them. And no matter what squad is selected, there will be players who are good enough to go, who won’t go (this is mathematically inevitable given that the players who good enough to go outnumber the spots available).

In fact, on Sunday evening, I did post an XI and the outlines of a T20 squad. What was interesting was not that people noticed that Virat Kohli wasn’t in it. What was interesting was why they thought he ought to be in it. Broadly the responses fell into two categories - (1) those who thought it was unthinkable that a player of his reputation and stature shouldn’t go (lets call this the status reason), and (2) those who though it was unthinkable that a player with his T20 record shouldn’t go (lets call this the record reason).

On balance, I have more sympathy for the status reason. The people who give the status reason (often colorfully, replete with all the usual assaults on motives “you’ve got a Mumbai bias”, “why do you favor Rohit Sharma over Virat Kohli”, “criticizing Kohli for hits is a cheap play bro” etc. etc.) are right. If there are swear words in their tweet, unfortunately they automatically get blocked, but they are right.

It is very very unlikely that Kohli will not go to T20 World Cup if he’s available. He’ll have to be sacked as T20 captain, and that’s not just a selection decision, its a BCCI decision. And the BCCI is unlikely to do any so controversial given how emotionally invested millions are in Kohli. But at least those who give the status reason aren’t pretending that they care about the competitive details of T20.

What of the record reason?

In 2021, after 18 years of T20, the evidence shows that batting in T20 is far more cautious and conservative than it is in ODIs. If the point of a limited overs innings is for teams to be given finite resources (10 wickets and 300 balls in ODIs, 10 wickets and 120 balls in T20) in which they are to make as many runs as they can, then the challenge before a batting side is to spend the 10 wickets most efficiently to find the largest possible number of runs from available deliveries. If a batting side gets bowled out, it means that they’ve taken too many risks. If a batting side loses very few wickets, then it means that they’ve been very conservative. Note, that in each case, the team may still score enough runs on the day, because they’re simply better than their opponent on the day, but it still means that they’ve been inefficient. Scores like 320/2 in 50 overs or 190/2 in 20 overs are examples of such inefficiency.

Andre Russell takes more risks than any other T20 batter. He’s dismissed once every 15.6 balls in T20. If all XI players in a T20 side batted like Russell does, they would score 194 in 20 overs on average, and be bowled out 21.6% of the time. Actual T20 XIs are bowled out in 14% of their innings. Actual ODI XIs are bowled out in 35% of their innings.

Batting in T20 over its first 18 years has been significantly more conservative than batting in ODIs during the same period. Take Kohli himself. If all XI spots in a T20 batting line up played like Kohli, they would score 159 on average and be bowled out 0.12% of the time (1 in 833 innings). If all XI spots in an ODI batting line up played like Kohli, they would score 276 on average and be bowled out 1.28% of the time (1 in 78 innings). Kohli himself is 10 times more conservative in T20 than he is in ODIs.

The essential point about T20 is that the conventional understanding of batting (in which accumulating runs without being dismissed is considered a virtue) has to be turned on its head. A batter who has faced 15 balls, and pushes a single from his 16th is doing well in an ODI, but poorly in T20. This batter has won that 16th delivery for the batting side in an ODI, and lost that 16th delivery for the batting side in a T20.

A batter who averages 50 and scores at 150 runs per 100 bf is a worse T20 player than one who averages 30 and scores at 150 runs per 100 bf. The latter scores a higher rate earlier in the innings - risks dismissal more efficiently in a game were there are only 120 balls and 10 wickets to spend.

If you’re tempted into a reductio (“are you saying scoring at 350 and averaging 6 is better than scoring at 350, averaging 20”), then you needn’t be. There’s a threshold given in the design of the contest. In a 300 ball innings, its 30 balls per wicket, in a 120 ball innings, its 12 balls per wicket. The most aggressive player in T20, has gotten to 15.6. That’s how conservative T20 batting currently is.

Of all the measures in a T20 game, the one which predicts the winner most readily is boundary hitting. Teams which score more runs in boundaries than their opponents tend to win T20 games. In a contest where the scoring rate is between one and two runs per ball, a single is essentially a concession by the batting side to the bowling side. In the 50 over game, this is not the case. But in a 20 over game, it is.

Kohli’s problem in T20 is the same as Babar Azam’s. They face too many deliveries too conservatively. With 120 balls for 10 wickets, there is no need to build a batting innings around an anchor. Since the start of 2018, Kohli scores 0.69 runs in boundaries per ball faced in T20 games. Among the Indian players listed below, that’s the weakest figure. Considering players who have made at least a 1000 runs ensures that their periods of good and bad form are likely to be included.

The question is not whether or not Kohli is capable of hitting boundaries. The evidence is that for whatever reason, he doesn’t. Given how conservative T20 batting already is, picking the most conservative player out of a conservative bunch is a choice in the wrong direction. England don’t pick Joe Root in their T20 side anymore do they?

Kohli, Azam and others like them in today’s T20 are like Geoff Marsh, Desmond Haynes and others in ODIs in the 1980s - openers whose approach was shown to be excessively cautious by the next generation of ODI openers. T20 sides, especially in the franchises where tactics are more advanced than the international game, have already worked this out.

When compared to earlier editions, the difference for IND in the 2021 World T20 is that today there are a large number of options available to the Indian selectors in the power hitting area. The list above does not mention Shikhar Dhawan and Dinesh Karthik, who are both better options than Iyer and Kohli.

Virat Kohli is the best batsman in India currently. This does not mean he commands a spot in the Indian T20 selection. T20 requires different qualities. The players who have demonstrated those qualities best ought to be considered for India’s T20 selection. These are the qualities of a hitter and not those of a batsman.

It is very likely that the status reason will win the day though. Kohli’s unlikely to be dropped from the Indian T20 line up for the World T20. It would be just too controversial to do so, and the BCCI does not like controversies of this type. A conservative BCCI will pick a conservative T20 squad, in which Virat Kohli will make runs at a healthy average. Under the logic of the T20 game, these runs will be match losing runs, but that does not matter. For both India (with Kohli), and Pakistan (with Babar Azam), that healthy average is cultural capital on its own terms. It is respectability over competitiveness. Conservatives have always prized this.