The three-match ODI leg of the India vs Australia series was crucial preparation for both teams ahead of the World Cup early next year. The hosts were playing international cricket after about five months and were on a 24-match winning streak while the visitors were trying to figure a blueprint for their team combination after being in middling form through the World Cup cycle.
While the final result stood at 2-1 in Australia’s favour, the final match saw India end the storied win streak and register their highest successful run chase – a big morale boost ahead of the pink-ball Test and T20Is.
Purely from a World Cup perspective, the three ODIs in Mackay answered some questions and raised a few more for Mithali Raj, Ramesh Powar and Co. Here’s a look:
Did the middle-order gamble actually pay off?
It is an established fact now that the Indian middle order is prone to either quick collapses or slow progress on most days.
When the opening partnership fails to strike big, this becomes an even bigger problem. Already, India has a bad track record at setting scores despite having some of the most talented batters in world cricket.
The solution that has been tried out is a batting rejig first seen in the warm-up game. India left out Punam Raut and Jemimah Rodrigues, picked uncapped left-hand batter Yastika Bhatia, had as many as three all-rounders in Deepti Sharma, Vastrakar and Sneh Rana with power hitter Richa Ghosh, despite not being the best wicketkeeper. Not having Harmanpreet Kaur paved the way for this Plan B.
Did the gamble of a young and dynamic middle-order work? On the face if it, it was well worth the try.
Thanks to Shafali Verma settling in as opener (despite inexplicably not being in the plans initially), Bhatia stepping up brilliantly in her first series and Mithali Raj being flexible between No 3 and 4 depending on the match situation.
In fact, the left-handed Bhatia might just be the find of the series with scores of 34, 3, 64 in the ODIs and a 42-ball 41 in the practice game. Her partnership with Verma, who also scored her first ODI fifty, in the final game was a hopeful harbinger.
This new-look batting order had a chance both to bat first and second and looked capable despite the absence of Raut’s experience, Rodrigues’ flair and the injured Harmanpreet Kaur. So much so that the next question is, who makes way for the vice-captain when she comes back?
For now though, this problem of plenty is a good one to have.
What happens to the spin-it-to-win-it formula?
The other, perhaps lesser expected advantage of this dynamic middle order is that it gives India two solid spin options in Sharma and Rana at a time when they are struggling in this department. Even with similar skill sets, which led to Rana being dropped in the second match, they at least provide batting stability with a well-rounded option for 10 overs each. This is much needed at a time when India’s frontline spinners are looking increasingly vulnerable and readable.
Poonam Yadav and Rajeshwari Gayakwad were not bad in the ODIs but they were not as lethal as they once were, as was seen in the last series against South Africa and England as well. Ekta Bisht and Radha Yadav were also used during this time. The variety and frugality of spin has been one of India’s bigger strengths and if Australia and England batters are able to read this and make plans accordingly, it poses a whole new question to the think-tank.
As an aside, batting coach Shiv Sunder Das had recently mentioned that Rodrigues, an all-rounder at the domestic level, is working with coach Powar on her bowling. Maybe that will be another option to explore in the near future.
But for now, India’s once strongest weapon in the arsenal, could be their weakness now. Since January 2019, among all the teams in ODIs, Indian spinners collectively have the second worst strike rate and third worst average runs conceded per wicket.
Bowling Strike Rate & AVG since Jan '19 (SPIN)
Is Jhulan Goswami’s new-ball support found?
On the bowling front, the questions facing India is who supports Jhulan Goswami, the long-standing leader of the bowling pack often forced to be the lone wolf with the new ball. The 38-year-old is still among the most effective bowlers in the world and she has proved that again with her new-ball spells in the last two matches.
But India have struggled to find an able partner for her, trying out a number of pacers other than veteran Shikha Pandey, who was dropped in favour of newcomer Meghna Singh in Australia. Pooja Vastrakar, fitted in as pace bowling all-rounder, was the third seamer. In the past year, Mansi Joshi and Monica Patel have been tried out as well in this format.
Coach Powar had spoken at length about the need to have pacers able to hold the other end. “See, we have to have support for Jhulan Goswami… we’re looking for consistency at the other end so that Jhulan has the freedom to express herself. Because of the lack of bowling partnerships, she tends to get a little defensive which we don’t want as a team,” he said before leaving for Australia.
In that regard, the 27-year-old Meghna looked like a good option. In her three matches, she took one wicket but held up her end well to give Goswami the liberty to attack. Vastrakar as the third seamer worked well too in phases. The real challenge will be consistency, both from the team management and the bowlers selected. But the signs here were good.
Time for a camp only for fielding, running between wickets?
This final point is less of a question and more of a statement. It is high time. India’s running, whether on the outfield or on the 22 yards, is often responsible for taking away the team’s legs, so to speak. It’s hard to put a number on it, but a considerable number of runs have been gifted by misfields, overthrows and dropped catches in the three matches. Even when not under lights, India are missing easy high catches, losing sight of the ball or calling wrong. While keeper Ghosh has the excuse of inexperience (she was picked over Taniya Bhatia for her batting mainly), she also has a lot of ground to cover with the gloves.
No matter how often Rodrigues comes in as substitute, fact remains that India’s fielding has been shoddy. There is no designated fielding coach too as of now. Catches win matches and India has already has the experience of having “dropped the World Cup” but is yet to improve significantly in this area. With the next series being the pre-World Cup tour to New Zealand, there is time yet for a stringent fielding camp of sorts. And while they are it, a crash course on quick running between the wickets will only help the team’s cause. Did you see Shafali Verma jumping over a throw and allowing a direct hit? Or the number of times the ball was fielded on the boundary line and India ran one when there were two on offer, or two when three were on offer?
Precious runs are being lost due to basic errors, that can be fixed with some hard work. The cricketing skills with bat and ball are often predetermined at the highest level, but there are no more excuses to be sloppy in these areas.