The final Twenty20 International and final match of India’s tour of South Africa did not begin on the best of notes for Harmanpreet Kaur and Co. There was rain in the air during the toss, which led to a delay. The Indian captain wanted to bowl first but lost the toss. And then the runs didn’t come as expected in the early going.

The Newlands conditions were already favourable for pace, so much so that India had actually dropped spinner Deepti Sharma and picked medium pacer Shikha Pandey in her place. But they wouldn’t be able to make the most of that change.
Add to this the fact that the last time India batted first, they collapsed from 93/3 to 133 all out, unable to play the full 20 overs in an “eye-opening” defeat as Proteas ripped through their middle order.

All this didn’t count for much though as India ended up winning the match by 54 runs and the T20I series 3-1. A comfortable-looking margin on paper, even if it wasn’t actually so.

It was, ultimately, a complete team performance with all three departments clicking, but the one major difference was that this time India’s batting didn’t give in while batting first. Not at the fall of the first wicket, not after a frugal over, and not taking unnecessary risks. That and the tiny matter of Mithali Raj, the anchor of the ship, not going early.

The batting plan

It wasn’t the best of starts for India with the first seven runs coming off extras. After a 12-ball over from Ayabonga Khaka, the scorecard looked better but Raj and Smriti Mandhana had not managed to hit the big shots. The first wicket fell in the fifth over for 32, and Mandhana’s, 13 off 14 balls, is an indication of how the going was.

But from 32/1 to 130/2, veteran Raj and teenager Jemimah Rodrigues showed their depth as India stuck to the old-fashioned adage of playing the good balls and punishing the bad ones.

The manner in which India planned their batting less than a week after imploding in a similar situation was an equally important positive. It showed the acumen and maturity of the unit, as much as it was a proof of the talent.

Last time round, India was all out for 133. This time, they had 30 more runs to defend. But it was not about those extra runs, it was about how the innings was planned and built, in a way that the 20 overs were well-paced.

Simple things like rebuilding at the fall of a wicket, taking a safe single after a boundary, not getting carried away and making sure runs didn’t always come at the cost of risky shots.

And then the bigger steps like promoting Jemimah Rodrigues to No 3 and put Harmanpreet at No 4 – to give stability to the middle order, a successful gamble.

Raj-Rodrigues show, again

Even after the loss of the first wicket, Raj and Rodrigues kept calm. When Raj and Rodrigues fell, the latter only six balls after the former, the duo of Harmanpreet and Veda Krishnamurthy put together a swift 32-run stand to provide the fireworks at death with the captain smashing 27 off 17 balls.

The result was there for all to see – a well-constructed total of 166 with 95 runs from the last 10 overs, 61 from the last five. The wonders of having wickets in hand.

Rodrigues had given away her wicket cheaply the last time, this time she saw the initial phase out, playing the balls on merit. There was a nervy moment at the start of her innings, when she mistimed a pull but it didn’t reach a fielder. But she cashed in on the break and made sure that the next time she tried the shot, she had the control over it and sent it racing along the ground... placing it between the two fielders in the deep.

But of course, the biggest factor was the presence of Mithali Raj. There is much talk of how the 35-year-old has revamped her T20 batting style and adapted to the faster game. She has undoubtedly done that to great effect and her improved record tells. But at the heart of it, it was her old-school ethic that kept the innings together. It was a basic ploy – stay at the crease, put a price on your wicket, read the pace, acclimatise to the pitch, and then go for the shots. In the process, she scored a 50-ball 62 studded with eight fours and three sixes, all solid cricketing shots, no slogs for her.

The Player of the Match and Series – for her 192 runs in four innings with three half-centuries – admitted that it wasn’t an easy wicket to bat first on. “It was a two-paced track to bat on but it became easier to play shots at the later stages. But it’s always nice to be among runs,” she said.

But the defining quote came from the captain, who sets a high standard for her team in this format: “I thought we were 20 runs short but our bowlers performed well.”

After the first T20I, we had written on these pages about the significance of the Raj-Rodrigues partnership when the two lead India’s highest run-chase. That 10 days later, the duo got together again for a 98-run stand to give India a historic double series win in South Africa, is proof of the pudding.

The shortest format of the game is one in which India have not done well traditionally. The last World Twenty20 at home in 2016 was let down, even though they lifted the Asia Cup in that format. So winning the series in South Africa, after a win in the bilateral ICC Women’s Championship ODI series, was a massive boost.

The message is clear: this World T20 won’t be like the last. This is a far better-equipped Indian team, with aims of a 180-run target. This is an Indian team with great potential matched by planning and backed by performance.