India in South Africa

The Mithali Raj-Jemimah Rodrigues partnership heralds a crucial forward step for India in T20Is

India’s 7-wicket win was a testament to the team’s all-round strength, even as Harmanpreet gambled with four debutants in the playing XI.

When Jemimah Rodrigues came in to bat in India colours for first time, her team was in a tricky spot. Two wickets had fallen in two balls – the big ones of Smriti Mandhana (28 off 15) and Harmanpreet Kaur (0 off 1) – and, it was only the fifth over in a steep chase in the first Twenty20 International in South Africa.

Imagine the pressure on the 17-year-old Mumbai batter. Starting your international career after a double-wicket carnage, in overseas conditions, chasing a target that India has never achieved before.

But not once did Rodrigues betray her nerves, if any. Not once did it look like this was a teenager on debut. She was calm, composed, self-assured and scoring in good nick.

That might be due to – in no small measure – the presence of a certain Mithali Raj at the other end. A veteran who has seen many a tricky situation, a master at leading her team out of them.

Rodrigues, less than half of Raj’s age, was not even born when the highest ODI run-getter made her international debut as a 16-year-old in 1999. Two decades and over 8600 international runs later, the 35-year-old, perhaps fittingly, was waiting at the other end to welcome Rodrigues to international cricket.

But the age and runs didn’t matter, the only number that mattered was 165: the runs India needed to win the first of the five-match T20I series.

And they did so, by a commanding seven-wicket margin, scripting a new record.

The veteran and the teenager went on to put together a match-defining 69 run partnership, which steered India’s challenging chase.

The first ball she faced was a dot. But once she got her bearing, the second went for a boundary, as did the fifth, and the sixth was a six. Just like that, in a matter of six balls from Ayabonga Khaka, India’s chase was stabilized after that double blow.

From then on, Raj and Rodrigues rebuilt, bringing up their 50 partnership in just 31 balls. They kept the runs coming, rotating strike and all the while, punishing the balls that could be put away.

Rodrigues was a picture of concentration as she stood toe to toe with India’s most experienced player. The fact that two of India’s most prolific batters had been dismissed in the over before didn’t count for much as she went ahead playing her shots. She showed good, solid technique, moving her feet to spin, using the pace to drive deliveries along the ground. At no point did she play a nervous shot or get too cheeky.

She gave away her wicket when India needed to accelerate after three sedate overs, top-edging the wily Dane van Niekerk after making a crucial 37 off 27 with four fours and a six. She would have liked to score a lot more, but for now, she had justified her selection.

When Rodrigues got out, the equation was still 52 runs needed off 39 balls. Not too daunting, but not very easy ask either. But in walked the swashbuckling Veda Krishnamurthy, and continued from where she had left off in the ODIs, thwacking bowlers for runs.

Winning moment for India
Winning moment for India

She ended the match with a massive six, finishing on 37 (off 22) with three fours and as many sixes. Every time the required rate climbed up, she would find the boundary to answer the tight line. No area was safe, she would hit you big no matter what.

And while the two younger players piled on the runs, Raj made a patient fifty – her third successive in the format, with six fours and a six. Opening the innings, she was both the sheet anchor and sails of the chase, steering India on. While her strike rate was not up to the usual T20 standards in the middle overs, she was the calming presence throughout, sharing two fifty-run partnerships.

These three women made the chase look easy, when it was anything but.

All-round team effort

India’s seven-wicket win was also a testament to the team’s all-round strength – even as Harmanpreet gambled with four debutants in the playing XI. From the timely, run-containing overs from the spinners, to the conscious energy on the field, everyone did their bit to make sure that at no point in the 39 overs, India were over-reliant on one player. Importantly, everyone held their nerve and showed great match awareness, even when the Proteas threatened to take over.

From the moment India won the toss and chose to field, there was a plan and then another if that failed. When Shikha Pandey went for 11 runs in her first over, she was replaced by T20 specialist Anuja Patil in the next over. But it was only to change her ends, a move that worked as she dismissed Lizelle Lee.

Off-spinner Patil was the pick of the bowlers with 2 for 23, which accounted for the dangerous-looking pair of van Niekerk (38 off 31 balls) and Mignon du Preez (31 off 27). If either of them had settled, the chase would have been much higher. Medium-pacer Pooja Vastrakar went for 34 runs in her 4 overs but Harmanpreet gave her an extended spell in one stretch and she got the wicket of Sune Luus.

But perhaps the most telling takeaway from this match will that this was India’s highest run chase in T20s and the second highest in women’s T20 cricket. This match was also topping the list for match aggregates and sixes.

This is a new facet of women’s cricket – big scores, big-hitting. That Indians showed they can do it and do it well – be it young or senior – is important. That it was against a non-Asian team in overseas conditions makes it even better. Teams around the world have repeatedly showed that success in the shortest format comes as a result of a combination of experience and youth, and this win showed India are on board with that template.

In the year of a standalone women’s World T20, for a team that hasn’t played this format much and doesn’t have a big representation in leagues, this victory is a significant step forward.

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