In a T20 international, you would back the batting team to come out on top most times if 23 runs are required to win off 16 deliveries with five wickets remaining. That was the equation for India to clinch the gold medal at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, which saw women’s cricket and the T20 format featuring for the first time at the quadrennial multi-sport event.
But it wasn’t to be for India. They could manage just 13 runs more and lost those five remaining wickets over the next 13 balls to lose by nine runs – the same margin by which they had lost the 2017 ODI World Cup final against England. And the collapse, not that different either.
The mighty Australian team deserved all the credit for their courage and determination. They had raised their level time and again in the past and with another memorable performance, further cemented their position among the greatest teams in the sport’s history.
For India, though, it was another incredible opportunity missed. The runner-up finish in 2017 did its part to raise the profile of women’s cricket in the country but anyone who saw that match will tell you it was India’s to win. Then, at the 2020 T20 World Cup, India put together another fine run before being blown away by Australia in the final.
And now after this – a loss in a third major final – one couldn’t help but wonder what the status of women’s cricket in India (which undoubtedly leaves a lot to be desired administratively) would have been had these results gone the other way. Things shouldn’t change because the team won a World Cup or gold medal, they should change before to help them get there, but that is unfortunately how things seem to be.
So what went wrong for India this time in the final at Edgbaston? Firstly, they deserve credit for playing some quality cricket throughout the tournament. After losing to Australia in the tournament opener (again, a match they lost after being in a strong position), Harmanpreet Kaur and Co defeated Pakistan, Barbados and England to secure a spot on the podium.
India’s semifinal victory against England, in particular, was impressive. Skipper Natalie Sciver and wicketkeeper Amy Jones were threatening to take the hosts over the line but Sneh Rana, Deepti Sharma and Pooja Vastrakar stepped up with the ball towards the end to close out a four-run win.
Smriti Mandhana with the bat and Renuka Singh Thakur with the ball were exceptional. Mandhana went on to finish as the third-highest run-scorer in the tournament (159 runs from five matches), while Renuka was the highest wicket-taker (11 from five matches).
In a tournament that featured most of the best teams in the world, finishing runners-up is indeed commendable. But again, if you saw the final you would know India should have returned with gold.
Eventually, it was an issue which was evident all along that came back to haunt India. Putting just four specialist batters in your playing XI, in any format of cricket, is risky business.
India went with that strategy for a few matches and at no point did it seem convincing, even if the wins were. Mandhana’s excellence at the top of the order, especially her match-winning 61 off 32 in the semifinal, and Renuka’s wickets in the powerplay were instrumental in keeping the team afloat. But it was hardly a surprise to see a team as dangerous as Australia expose that weakness.
In the final, India delivered one of their finest fielding performances in a long time, with Radha Yadav and Deepti leading the way. With the ball, too, they did well in restricting Australia to 161. But so shallow was their batting department that despite all the good work until then, they didn’t look like the favourites to win even with the equation being: 23 runs to get off 16 balls with five wickets in hand.
India undoubtedly have immense talent in their squad, but individual brilliance can only get you so far. For a team to perform consistently, especially when the stakes are high, the planning has to be watertight.
For instance, the decision to not include Richa Ghosh in the squad made little sense back then, even more so now. The wicketkeeper was being groomed as a hard-hitting middle order batter but she had to make way for Yastika Bhatia first and then Taniya Bhatia, whose last T20I appearance had come at the T20 World Cup final in March 2020. While Yastika got a chance to bat in the final after all, it was circumstantial and didn’t do much to solve India’s batting worries.
It betrayed a lack of vision from the management. In a team packed with natural top order batters, the lower middle-order weakness was glaring and the selectors and coaching staff that was responsible for the lack of balance should have a rethink. It is not the first time at the end of major tournament we are left wondering what-if.
To captain Harmanpreet’s credit, she did acknowledge the fact that there is scope for improvement.
“I am someone who is always looking for one more batter in the side,” she said after the final loss at Edgbaston.
“Unfortunately, we’re working on that. Once we get that, this thing [collapsing] will go away. Every time in big finals, we make the same mistakes again and again [with the bat], that is something we have to improve. We don’t do these mistakes in the league phase or in bilateral. That is blocking our mind somewhere.”
This brings us to the other issue that cost India in Birmingham – a sense of panic in high-pressure situations. Be it Harmanpreet’s dismissal after bringing her team to a strong position, or the collapse that saw the last five wickets fall for 13 runs in a span of 13 deliveries – India crumbled under pressure again.
Australian pacer Megan Schutt summed up the difference between the two teams when she said: “One of the best games I’ve ever been a part of, by far. The way we scrapped at the end there – that definitely wasn’t our best game. We didn’t field the best, we didn’t bowl the best, and we scrapped with the bat, but we fight, that’s what we do.”
In essence, Australia once again showed the “killing attitude”, something Harmanpreet is hoping for her team to inculcate more.
India have a young, promising side and there is little doubt they will continue to challenge for the biggest prizes the sport has to offer. They missed out on qualifying for the semifinals of the ODI World Cup earlier in the year and showed great character by bouncing back at the Commonwealth Games. And while the silver medal does deserve to be celebrated, there’s still lots to improve in terms of both planning and execution. As has been the case for a while.