India will face arguably the toughest test there is in the sport when they square off against the mighty Meg Lanning-led Australian team in the semifinal of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2023 at Newlands, Cape Town, on Thursday.
Australia, the defending champions who have won five of the seven completed editions of the tournament, have been their dominant self so far in South Africa. Lanning and Co defeated New Zealand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Africa in the group stage and remain firm favourites to win the title again.
India, on the other hand, qualified for the semis but are perhaps yet to find their best as a team. Harmanpreet Kaur’s side defeated rivals Pakistan and West Indies, lost by 11 runs to England, and edged out Ireland in the last league game.
There have been some fine individual performances by the Indian players but none of the matches saw the 2020 runners-up put up an entirely convincing show as a unit. The fact that they have reached the semifinals despite that could be looked at as a positive, knowing the best is yet to come. But they do have concerns to address before they face the strongest team in the world.
Dot ball issue
While Jemimah Rodrigues starred against Pakistan and Smriti Mandhana was the saviour against Ireland, the likes of skipper Harmanpreet and opener Shafali Verma are yet to come to the party in the batting top order.
One of the main concerns for India, albeit not a new one, is the dot ball percentage. India faced a total of 51 dots against England and 41 against Ireland. Those are high numbers in T20 cricket and against a team like Australia, could prove to be decisive.
Harmanpreet did admit after the Ireland game that the team is worried about the dot ball issue.
“Against England also, we played too many dot balls. We are already discussing in the team meetings,” the Indian captain said after the win against Ireland.
“End of the day, on these wickets when you score 150, you know, that’s a par score for you. And it’s important that, you know, [at least] 150 should be on the board other than just taking too much pressure. We are just going there and understanding what conditions are there and just playing according to the situation. And dot balls are something which is already worrying us. And I think the next game, we would love to see some improvement in that area also.”
For what it’s worth, it seems it is more about conquering the conditions rather than the intent of the batters. Harmanpreet and Shafali, for instance, did swing hard for the most part against Ireland but kept finding the fielders. The big grounds and windy conditions in South Africa have been a challenge for the batters, but India will need to find a way to keep rotating the strike. Newlands might offer a bit more respite in terms of conditions.
One of the positives in the batting department, though, has been Richa Ghosh. The young keeper-batter, who was part of the ICC Under-19 World Cup-winning team recently, got out for a first-ball duck in the previous game but remained unbeaten on 31, 44 and 47 in the first three matches.
In the press conference ahead of the semifinal against Australia, Richa stated that she tried to play each ball on its merit and doesn’t focus on the bowler’s reputation.
“I just look at the ball and try to play,” said Richa. “It is also important to pay attention to the match situation and how the pitch is behaving. But I mainly focus on one ball at a time. Because when we think that a bowler is a top bowler, then we start to get nervous. But I don’t want that.”
Bowling and fielding concerns
The fact that Renuka Singh Thakur was the only Indian bowler in the top 10 wicket-takers at the end of the league says a lot. The right-arm pacer may have picked only two wickets in three games but her 5/15 against a strong England batting lineup was mighty impressive.
India, however, need the rest of their bowling lineup to step up. Radha Yadav missed the Ireland game due to an illness and it remains to be seen if she will be fit for the semifinal, while the other left-arm spinner in the team – Rajeshwari Gayakwad – did not pick a single wicket across the four league games.
India’s star all-rounder Deepti Sharma bagged a three-for against West Indies but was expensive against Pakistan and England. Meanwhile the other two pacers who have played so far – Pooja Vastrakar and Shikha Pandey – have been economical but Harmanpreet would want them to provide more breakthroughs.
In terms of fielding too, there is plenty of scope for improvement. With the sheer volume of match-winners in Australia’s ranks, all it could take is one mistake for the match to turn. India will know that and will be hoping for a much-improved performance in the field in the semifinal.
Test of character
Despite all these concern areas, though, the fact remains that India have a high class squad and the depth to challenge Australia. After all, India were the ones who handed Australia their only defeat in 2022 in all women’s international cricket, and they had also ended Lanning and Co’s 26-match unbeaten run in ODIs in 2021. The 2020 ICC Women’s T20 World Cup final may have been one-sided, but Harmanpreet’s team came incredibly close to completing an upset in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games final last year.
Lanning, in her pre-match press conference, said that Australia’s favourable record against India won’t matter when the two teams meet this time.
“Both teams start at the same level tomorrow when we come out and play,” she said. “What’s happened in the past doesn’t make a difference. We need to come out and play our best cricket and play the way that we want to. It’s going to be an incredible game, two world-class teams going at it. And it’s about putting out your best performance on the day.”
Two of the biggest recent heartbreaks for India came in the 2017 ODI World Cup final and the CWG 2022 final, where they suffered nine run defeats against England and Australia respectively. And in the semifinal on Thursday, it could come down to fine margins once again.
In an interview with Scroll in January this year, skipper Harmanpreet reflected on the importance of having that big-game mentality, when asked about the “killing attitude” remark by Pooja Vastrakar before the Asia Cup. The 33-year-old had said that with the right kind of support, the team is getting there.
“That killing attitude? (Smiles) Yes, we have “Killer” now on our T-shirts also,” Harmanpreet had said before the World Cup. “I think it is important for us, the team atmosphere is so positive. That’s what, you know, it takes a lot of time to build that. I am so happy to see that everyone is gelling together and doing so well. That one step is missing, this time I hope with the help from support staff and the fans, we get that. We are just there.”
Australia know how to boss big games, have match-winners aplenty in their lineup and are unlikely to give too many chances to their opponents. But if India do earn an opportunity in the semifinal, they will need to have the discipline and composure to grab it. Harmanpreet and Co are yet to put in a comprehensive team performance in the tournament and if they manage to do that on Thursday, they could end up taking a massive step towards that elusive senior ICC title. The quest must be for perfection on the day.