Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines left-field (adjective) as: not following what is usually done; different, surprising and interesting.

India’s decision to pack their top their order with three Left-Handed Batters against New Zealand at the ICC Women’s ODI Cricket World Cup match in Hamilton on Thursday was certainly different and interesting, perhaps not completely surprising, and most definitely not what is usually done.

As per the records available on ESPNCricinfo Statsguru, this was only the third time in the history of this format that India had three left-handers in the top three. It was certainly the first time India went that away in this current World Cup cycle. Indeed, Smriti Mandhana, Yastika Bhatia and Deepti Sharma had never before batted for India in that order in an international match. The only occasion they had batted in that order was in the warm-up match against South Africa in Rangiora when Mandhana had to retire hurt early in the proceedings. Hardly the best sample size.

And yet here we were, in a huge World Cup clash, losing which could make India’s life in the rest of the tournament really complicated, seeing India employ this tactic for the first time.

Unfortunately, the left-field call in Hamilton did not bear the right results for the side. Of that, there is little doubt or surprise.

Now, in itself, it is not wrong to have three LHBs in the top three. Really, we don’t often hear complaints about a side having three high quality Right-Hand Batters in their top three in any form of cricket. We have also seen two left-handers forming formidable opening partnerships. Sometimes, your best three batters have to be in the top three, it’s simple.

But in Hamilton against New Zealand in a World Cup match (we repeat it, because here the occasion and context is everything), it was anything but straightforward from India. It was a situation they arrived at with very little prior evidence it could work.

Conceding the fact that India’s preparation for the tournament wasn’t ideal, without a skills camp in India for the travelling squad and quarantining in New Zealand, they had the next best possible situation with five ODIs. We didn’t see this then. In the one year preceding the World Cup too, they played against four of the top nations in the game. We didn’t see this then.

The volume of international matches is nearly not enough for the team, but it was sufficient to at least identify the best possible top three and not experiment in a must-not-lose World Cup match.

And make no mistake, it was an experiment. Sure, Shafali Verma’s lack of runs forced their hand somewhat. Sure, Yastika Bhatia is no stranger to open the batting in her cricketing career. But to ask her to do it for India in an international match for the first ever time at a World Cup (another first, notice a trend?) doesn’t speak highly about the team’s planning.

Even Deepti Sharma’s promotion to top three happened far too close to the tournament. She has always been more comfortable as a top order batter, does so in the domestic circuit, doesn’t appear too comfortable as an enforcer at the slog overs, has scored a 188 batting as an opener... but the last time she played at No 3 for India before the recent New Zealand series was in February 2019. Suddenly, with the World Cup around the corner, it was another batting experiment that did not bear desired results in the first two matches.

If Mandhana found the gaps instead of the fielders at the start of her innings, and went on to play a significant knock as we have come to expect from her in run-chases especially, maybe the pressure on the other two would have been lessened. Maybe we wouldn’t be talking about this tactic with a question mark next to it. Maybe we would hail it as a left-field masterstroke.

But we can only look at how things unfolded and how New Zealand lined up the Indian batters with simple yet brutally effective plans. India invited New Zealand to size them up, the hosts duly obliged. In the post-match interaction, pacer Lea Tahuhu said it was not something they had prepared for especially as they expected to be bowling to Shafali Verma at the top but once they knew this at the toss, they changed things up to bring in the off-spin of Frances Mackay and the in-swingers (away for LHBs) of Jess Kerr.

The ball kept going away from the Indian top order, as did the asking rate. A score of 26/2 at the end of 10 overs was followed by 50/3 at the end 20 overs. Teams are simply not going to recover from there chasing 260-plus at a World Cup, no less.

The decision was made even more puzzling when batting coach SS Das said post-match that it was something they could yet revisit. “With Smriti batting in the top order, we thought we could get some runs from the top order, but maybe we have to think about this decision in the next game,” he said, about the three LHBs in the top three.

Was it just a one-off move then to give Shafali a break? If they took a decision for a big match like this, was it not done with conviction? If there is uncertainty after the fact, why was there no proactive planning before it? If they change it again now, what does it tell the person who has to make way? Or do they continue to stick with this and hope things click into place? What this does is that it leaves the Indian team management in an even trickier position for the next match.

And make no mistake, when they take on an undefeated West Indies on Saturday, with just a one-day turn-around, all eyes are going to on the batting unit. It is all well and good to say the top order needs to do more, and ultimately it is up to the players to score runs in the middle. But when the think-tank sets them up for such tough situations, it betrays a lack of collective clarity that certainly doesn’t help individuals.

Also read:

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Analyse, learn and move ahead: Reactions to India’s World Cup defeat against New Zealand

World Cup: ‘The top-order has to fire,’ says India batting coach SS Das after big loss against NZ

World Cup: In defeat against New Zealand, Pooja Vastrakar shines bright as India’s rising star