Indian cricket should be dominating world cricket. By bank balance it already is: the last Indian Premier League deal went for more than US$6bn (£5.1bn), the season will soon expand to 94 matches, its timeframe will eat up more of the southern season, pushing earlier into March and perhaps even February. Its franchises have already taken January by buying up new leagues in South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, the same organisations are eyeing up the Hundred in England and the Big Bash in Australia should private investment be invited, and as salary caps increase they will soon be able to pay players amounts that even the richest national boards cannot match.
For all of that, hegemony on the field has not yet been established. Logic suggests that it will: the success of the Indian Premier League means that scouts are now touring their own vast country, searching for new talent to be developed, while more players in lower competitions give their all to chase the possibility of a cricket career with so many more jobs available. The players selected are put into high-level professional environments, training with some of the best coaches and teammates in the world. Every advance made by a local player benefits the Indian national setup.
The league finds unknown genius, such as Jasprit Bumrah. It hones unfinished talent, such as Hardik Pandya or Suryakumar Yadav. It revives foregone players, such as Dinesh Karthik. In doing so it builds bench depth across formats, such as that shown by Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur in helping beat Australia in Brisbane on their Test debuts. It produces players who know big crowds, who know pressure situations, and who are not intimidated by the next step.
Really that should already have led to India cleaning up on the world stage. But not to be: India’s last trophy was the 2011 World Cup, won by a pre-IPL generation when the league had existed for only three seasons. A new batch made the 2014 T20 final but lost to Sri Lanka when Yuvraj Singh got the jitters. There was a bomb-out so severe in the 2015 World Cup semi-final that the largely Indian crowd at Sydney left halfway through the second innings. There was an onslaught from West Indies hitters in the 2016 T20 semi-final, and a whirlwind performance by Pakistan to take the 2017 Champions Trophy. The 2019 World Cup semi-final was rained into a second day, but New Zealand had already outbowled India and soon bowled them out. The World Test Championship final in 2021 went a similar way, and it was New Zealand again in that year’s T20 tournament, combining with Pakistan to knock out India at the group stage.
Online parochialists have shaped excuses into grievances. In 2021 it was unfair because India had to bat first in the UAE. Southampton was unfair in 2020 because New Zealand enjoyed home ground advantage in a country more than 18,000 kilometres from their own. The same went for Manchester in 2019, when the ball swung unjustly for the Kiwis. The century that Fakhar Zaman thrashed in 2017 was entirely unreasonable for an unknown opener. The 2015 loss was because Australians always cheat, 2016 was a plague of frogs, 2014 was either scabies or boils.
Now we can add Adelaide 2022 to the list, with another T20 World Cup semi-final exit for the premier 20-over nation. No one can blame losing the toss, because almost every win in this tournament has been enjoyed by the team that did. Nor batting first, because every other team won after doing so at Adelaide Oval. Perhaps the grievance will be that the England replacement Phil Salt had played two seasons for the Adelaide Strikers, allowing him to share an intimate and deeply unfair home knowledge of Adelaide Oval. Job done, he spent his night at first drop as a spectator while his openers cruised to a 10-wicket win. Losing to England proves that it’s all a conspiracy somehow; now that the Queen has gone we’ll never know how deep it went.
The basic truth is that India crashed out once more as the team fancied to progress. Quite why is harder to define. All those years of IPL training didn’t help a top order to decide that scoring quickly while the fielders are up is a desirable way to play. India meandered to 38 for one in the powerplay, before Jos Buttler and Alex Hales sacked 63 runs from theirs. There can be good bowling up top, there can be swing to defuse and deliveries to respect. But there also has to be a mindset to attack by default, defend by necessity. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli went at it the other way around.
Underperformance at this level will not last for ever. There are really two options: either Indian cricket tires of falling short and turns inward to content itself with domestic riches, or it begins an era of winning so routinely that any loss will be an aberration. The appeal of patriotism to the ruling class, a group that is politically one and the same as cricket administrators, suggests that beating other countries will still be desired. Not to mention that the IPL thrives on the cachet of importing big-name foreigners who only become big names by playing for their countries. Surely India will take control on the field the same as off. It’s just a surprise that it hasn’t happened yet.