In 21 T20Is India have played in bilateral tours so far this year, they have won 16 and lost four. But in the Asia Cup, India’s first multi-team event since the 2021 T20 World Cup, India exited the Super 4 phase after losing to Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In experiment mode while going in without Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Harshal Patel, India couldn’t defend 181 and 173, but the crux of the problem is still thought to be a batting line-up that isn’t firing together.
Losses are part of the game but India’s performance again raises the question whether they are better in bilateral series than multi-team tournaments. Results suggest so. India have won the only tri-nation series they have participated in the last 10 years—the Nidahas Trophy in 2018—but teams already start such tournaments with a 33% chance of winning. Finishing second among three isn’t difficult.
The odds get higher as the number of teams increase. This is where India’s frailties have been consistently exposed. Since 2007, India, hosts of the most successful franchise league, have not won a T20 World Cup in six attempts. The 2016 Asia Cup, played in the T20 format, was an exception. It continues to be so after India’s deflating ouster in the UAE. The difference in approach is undeniable. Bilateral series is an opportunity to work on mistakes and improve against opponents who get familiar with time. That doesn’t happen in multi-nation tournaments. India skipper Rohit Sharma said that after the loss to Sri Lanka. “In tournaments like Asia Cup and World Cup where there are multiple opponents, there is more pressure,” he said. “In a bilateral series you play against the same opposition for three-five matches so you can plan better.”
Sharma played down the results but if winning the T20 World Cup is the aim, winning the Asia Cup was the best preparation India could have asked for. Perhaps that prompted previous India coach Ravi Shastri, under whom India failed to make it to the T20 World Cup semi-finals last year, to question the team’s mindset. “When you need to win, you got to prepare better,” Shastri said after the Sri Lanka defeat. “The selection could have been better, especially for the fast bowlers.”
India are again slated to play bilateral T20Is—three each against Australia and South Africa at home—in the little time left before the World Cup. In light of the Asia Cup disappointment, the winning momentum has to come from these two series. India would probably achieve it too. But such wins have often proved eyewash. Shastri has pointed it out before. “There’s too much bilateral stuff going on in T20 cricket. I’ve said that (before), even when I was the coach of India, I could see it happening in front of my eyes,” he had told ESPNcricinfo before the home series against South Africa. “A team wins the World Cup, they will remember it. Unfortunately, we didn’t, so I don’t remember that either.”
Triseries offered at least some variety, but they are a relic of time now. And with the ICC lining up events every year, India have no alternative but to rely on the Asia Cup according to the format of the World Cup they are playing that year. That’s why the 2016 Asia Cup was considered perfect preparation for the T20 World Cup that year. Not only did India win all their matches, they also achieved it playing an almost unchanged eleven—effecting just two changes in five matches. The World Cup squad too had effectively one change from the Asia Cup—Parthiv Patel dropped to add Manish Pandey.
This India team looks nowhere near as settled.
Despite the results, former India opener Gautam Gambhir is optimistic India will get their act together in time. “It’s not the right criteria to judge the Indian team by these two performances,” he told Star Sports during the Asia Cup. “This unit will look totally different when you have your main bowlers back. Imagine how much depth you will have if you have Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami with the new ball, and either Arshdeep (Singh) or Harshal Patel later.” The sooner that happens the better would be India’s chances of arresting the worrying trend of not winning multi-team tournaments.
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