India's road to the T20 World Cup is paved with tough questions and options

Jitesh Sharma smashed 35 off just 19 balls AFP/Getty Images

If, as expected, Rohit Sharma joins Rahul Dravid as the leader of the Indian cricket team until the T20 World Cup in June, there will be an element of personal pursuit to it: a final attempt at a world title perhaps, both for captain and coach. They could have walked away with heads held high, even if not on the ultimate high, after winning 10 straight matches en route to the 2023 ODI World Cup final, but there must have been that temptation to try to complete the story once the offer was made.

To be fair to Rohit and Dravid, this is not exactly an easy assignment, which is probably why they have been asked to continue in the first place. It points to a lack of planning from the decision-makers who had neither thought of a succession plan nor asked the current leaders if they wanted to continue until four days after the World Cup final.

They had put everything in the ODI World Cup basket, then realised they had to start gearing up for a T20 World Cup. By the time they would have advertised for coaching candidates, interviewed them and then got someone on board, India wouldn't have any matches left to try and build a combination. And this is not just any format, but the one India are least strong in.

Surely Dravid and Rohit know what a risk this is to their legacy? India are not laggards but they are nowhere close to dominating the T20 format as they do Tests and ODIs. At full strength, they are the team to beat in ODIs as we saw in the World Cup. In Tests, it still looks like it will be a while before any side can threaten to take a home series off India while they themselves continue to be competitive wherever they tour. In T20Is, even at full strength, they are, well, on the top end of the mid card.

There are a couple of structural issues with the composition of the XI. Despite being home to the biggest T20 league, despite being the biggest cricket country, India doesn't produce enough allrounders to give them the kind of depth that allows them to play freely. One of their two allrounders is injury prone, the other one easy to contain when he bats against spin. They ideally need more batting power, which can leave the bowling thin, a risk they have not been prepared to take even though the quality of bowling has less incremental advantage in T20 cricket than in longer formats.

The other issue is that in T20s, India is largely a country of top-order batters who set up to bat through an innings. There is not enough reward internally, not enough recognition externally, and thus not enough cushion to fail, for batters who hit out selflessly in the middle order.

Accumulation is perhaps too ingrained in the DNA of batters, who have had to show volume and averages to get selected right from a young age through every level before they reach the IPL or international cricket. All of India's previous three knockout defeats in T20 World Cups can be, and should be, put down to conservative batting, but what is remembered? The no-ball from R Ashwin and the dropped catch in the 2016 semi-final, and captain Rohit's words that India should have bowled better in the 2022 semi-final.

With Rohit's likely replacement as captain, Hardik Pandya, being injury-prone, the move to ask Rohit to continue seems to have as much to do with his captaincy as his newfound form in the ODI World Cup, which finally matched the exemplary intent he has been showing over the last two years. That, then, creates another issue: if India decide they need a more dynamic No. 3 than Virat Kohli, do they have it in them to make an unpopular decision, which becomes even more unpopular if they retain one and drop the other?

Also what's best for the Indian team is not always best for the IPL team, which is the only non-international T20 cricket for most of India's players. Take Liam Livingstone's example. He was too good to not be playing for England, but there was no room at the top of the order, where he used to bat. So Livingstone made sure he batted in the middle order in every league he played, bowled a lot of legspin and offspin in the nets, and he presented himself as a middle-order option capable of bowling an over or three when required.

A similar scenario for India is KL Rahul, who is a good enough wicketkeeper-batter in the middle order as he showed for Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2016, but he can't be asked to play an IPL season in that role for Lucknow Super Giants just because that will help India in the T20 World Cup. Forget co-ordinating priorities with an IPL team, there wasn't enough continuity in India's interim team management who took four matches to give Jitesh Sharma a go when it is clear that India need a wicketkeeper in the middle order and not in the top three, where Ishan Kishan kept batting.

Hardly has an India player emerged and added as much to his game as Livingstone or New Zealand's Glenn Phillips to make himself a better fit in a team combination. They are all near perfectionists at their core skill and obviously work hard on their fielding, but you rarely see a batter bowl in India's nets, for example. Phillips spends close to an hour bowling alone before a New Zealand net session.

It is still a testament to the strong basics of India's cricketers that they are dominant in two formats and there or thereabouts in the third. Starting this Sunday in Durban, India have six internationals - three of them against Afghanistan - and possibly half the IPL to see what they want to see before they select their squad for the T20 World Cup.

That the conditions for the tournament, to be played in the USA and West Indies, are largely an unknown will probably make it a slightly more level playing field for India. Also the beauty of T20 cricket is that form and momentum matter less in it than in other formats. You can outsmart or upset any team on a given day.

Dravid and Rohit, or whoever the captain is, don't really have time to bring about a culture change in India's T20 cricket, but if they manage to make a bold move or two and manage to succeed, they could create a blueprint for the future.