The juggernaut has been halted. In what proved to be a pretty stern reality check, Mithali Raj and Co’s run of unbeaten games at the ICC Women’s World Cup came to an end on Saturday at the hands of South Africa. It was a comprehensive beating, make no mistake. The margin of defeat – 115 runs – is a clear indicator that, on this particular day, South Africa thoroughly outplayed India in all three departments.

It all started so well for India when Shikha Pandey delivered one of the balls of the tournament in her very first over – a full ball that started from outside off-stump, curved in the air and clattered into the base of Laura Wolvaardt’s off-stump to send it cartwheeling. With the scoreboard reading 1 for 1 in the second over, Raj must have given herself a tiny little pat on the back to put South Africa in to bat first.

But that feeling of joy must have been short-lived as Lizelle Lee blew the Indian attack out of the park with what Raj would later describe as one of the best World Cup knocks she has seen. She hit seven sixes and 10 fours in her innings of 92 (off 65 balls) – that is 82 runs off just boundaries. It was a classic exhibition of clean hitting. Every six in that innings was breathtaking, but one stood out – she went on her knees, getting ready to slog-sweep over mid-wicket, but with Ekta Bisht landing the ball outside off-stump, she just continued with the motion and slog-swept it over long off for six. Yes, a slog-sweep that sailed over long off. It was that kind of an innings by Lee.

And to be fair to the Indian bowlers, to restrict South Africa to 273 after they were 134 in 20 overs was quite an achievement. The bowlers have collectively performed well in the World Cup so far and it’s a credit to the variety of options that Raj has at her disposal that, despite Jhulan Goswami and Bisht struggling, the rest chipped in. On a flat wicket, to restrict the team that made the highest ever second innings score in ODIs in their previous match against England, was job well done. The fielding, an old foe for this team, did prove to be a problem again – but going into the change room, Raj would have been thinking the target is gettable.

So where did it go wrong?

The batting, which has been blowing hot and cold in the tournament so far, proved to be India’s undoing. Smriti Mandhana, who started the tournament with two stylish knocks that made the cricketing world sit up and acknowledge her unquestionable talent, has followed up that 90 and 106* with scores of 2, 8 and 4. Therein lies the problem for India’s batting.

In the two matches that Mandhana made those big scores, India’s score at the end of 20 overs read 97/0 (against England) and 74/2 (against West Indies). In the three matches since, where Mandhana has not been around till the 20 over mark, the scores read 58/1 (against Pakistan), 63/2 (against Sri Lanka) and 65/7 (against South Africa, of course).

Even considering that the circumstances in the matches are different, there is a clear difference in India’s scoring rate when Mandhana gets dismissed early. With Deepti Sharma at No. 3, India have been left to consolidate after an early wicket, understandably. But the stark dip in scoring rates when the stylish left-hander does not click at the top, is an area of major concern for India. Against South Africa, it only got exaggerated.

To put things in perspective, India’s highest second innings score in ODIs is 261/9 – which came in the loss against South Africa in the recent Qudrangular series. India’s highest successful chase in ODIs is 245/9 – which also came against South Africa this year, in the World Cup qualifiers. So a target of 274 was always going to take a special effort by the batters. But faced with a considerably worse situation against England in their previous match, South Africa went about chasing down 373, with the belief that they can. They fell short by 65 runs, but that effort laid the platform for their early assault against India on Saturday. By going all out in a losing cause, South Africa did themselves a favour that could see them go far in the tournament.

India on the other hand, by playing safe, failed to wrestle some momentum. All defeats are not equally morale-sapping, but one where about three-fourths of the innings felt like net practice for South Africa bowlers, can have a damaging effect on the psyche. India’s chase practically ended after Dane van Niekerk sent Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur back for ducks in her very first over. If the idea was to get close to the target and reduce the margin of defeat, then that did not turn out well either.

Now, here’s the issue. Thanks to the scheduling of their matches, despite winning four out of their first five matches, India are left in a tricky position of winning either against Australia or New Zealand – their last two opponents, being the best two teams in the world.

What Raj said before leaving for the World Cup, sounds portentous now.

  “The one thing that troubles me is that the team should not peak early because that’s what I felt in the earlier World Cups too; whether it was the T20 or the 2013 World Cup where the run-up was very good but as we entered the World Cup, we won and then started to lose and we didn’t make a comeback. This World Cup has a different format - a league followed by knockouts, so you have chances to make it to the semi-finals even if you have one bad game. It is important that we be at our best and that we stay higher and not come down in terms of momentum and performance as a unit.”  

And that’s exactly the challenge facing Mithali Raj and the women in blue. It’s the ability to bounce back from defeats that decide how good a team is, in any sport. This is where the team’s mental makeup is going to be tested to the hilt. Whether they rise up to the occasion, or like Raj worried, have ‘peaked too early,’ we will know in the coming week.