There is a strange sense of similarity that binds women’s Test cricket as a format, in general, and the Indian women’s cricket team, in specific. The need for more chances to show how good they can be. A dedicated system that supports growth and not the occasional booster shots. More time in the middle.
The buzzwords, the bullet point summaries, are eerily similar.
These were brought into further highlight during the one-off pink-ball Test between India and Australia, which ended in a draw that perhaps felt as significant as a win. It was a reminder of the core that makes Test cricket – and the Indian women’s team – stand out despite the many challenges facing them in the larger context of the sport.
India, playing their first day-night Test with barely any previous experience with the pink ball, dominated almost every session of the rain-hit match. By the time Mithali Raj and Meg Lanning shook hands on the final day that featured two declarations, there really was one side that had a real shot at winning had there been a fifth, or even, reserve day.
India, after losing the toss and being to put in to bat on a green track against a famously swinging pink ball, outplayed Australia in most sessions. Every time it looked like the hosts found an opening to force play, someone stood up and took the momentum away. Smriti Mandhana against the new ball, Jhulan Goswami with the new ball, Rajeshwari Gayakwad with the old ball, Deepti Sharma facing the old ball... different situations, different solutions.
Who knows how it would’ve turned out if weather hadn’t taken nearly a day’s worth of overs away on the first two evenings, with the ball doing much under lights?
Unbeaten in tough conditions
India resumed playing Test cricket after seven years this year. There is no active red-ball, multi-day tournament in the domestic circuit. After a battling draw from the verge of defeat in England, they came into this match with perhaps more tactical solidity than Australia. But the visitors got to practice with the pink ball and under lights for only two evenings. Most of the team had played just one match in the longest format before, while Australia had played a day-night Ashes Test and Ellyse Perry had starred in it. (She is still unbeaten in pink-ball Tests after three innings, as an aside)
But at the end of it, it is India who are unbeaten in Test cricket in England and Australia this year and the improvements were there to see. In England, they were made to follow on after a batting collapse. In Australia, with skiddy pink ball and on a greenish pitch under lights, they almost made a batting unit with the likes of Meg Lanning, Alyssa Healy, Perry and Co follow on.
The one-off Test was full of such significant moments from an Indian point of view that made the experience enthralling; most of them showing the vast potential of the visitors.
For one, Jhulan Goswami, a pace-bowling superstar even at 38, running in with the new pink ball and the old consistency to trouble the best in the business with her tireless line-and-length. Her new ball spell, under lights, was an exhibition in setting up a batter and her dismissal of Alyssa Healy in the first innings was a joy to watch.
And as delightful as it was to watch her star with the ball in both innings, the optimism of young seamers Meghna Singh and Pooja Vastrakar supporting her with wonderful spells of their made it better. India has struggled with building a pace pool for a while now to support Goswami. There have been many who have tried to fill the role, Shikha Pandey – who was expected to play this Test – being the understudy. But India went ahead with Singh based on her impressive debut in ODIs and persisted with the steadily-improving Vastrakar as the pieces of the pace combination finally fell into place.
And the opening combination with the bat was as encouraging as the one with the ball.
Smriti Mandhana scored her first Test century in what is only her fourth Test, breaking the record for the highest-ever individual Test score by a visiting cricketer on Australian soil, that stood since 1949.
It was a masterclass in finding the gaps with grace during a fiery start and then later building an innings in the longer format. The first 50 was almost run-a-ball before the ball got older and she settled in to convert, making use of a no-ball reprieve along the way.
And there was Shafali Verma who scored her third Test half-century in just two Test matches, blending her brand of big-hitting batting with control. Her battle with fellow teen Stella Campbell especially stood out for the balance of spunk and maturity she showed. She also brought up a third 50-run opening stand in Test cricket with Mandhana. And there was a time, as recent as February this year, when there was an apparent school of thought that she was not suited for the longer formats, as she was left out of the home ODIs against South Africa.
Over these two away Tests in 2021, the Indian team certainly showed they can battle it out with the best, when the odds are stacked against them. Whether the women’s game embraces Tests more regularly is anyone’s guess at the moment, but in these brief trysts with the sport’s most enduring format, Mithali Raj and Co repeatedly showed they have the stomach for a fight, to grit it out.
It is in these moments that you truly see how far this Indian team has come, with limited exposure. And when, or if, India play another Test, it is this improvement in the oldest format of the game that is rarely played that will symbolise the real strength of Indian women’s cricket.
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