Is an India vs Pakistan match at an ICC event ever complete without some drama? There are the inevitable talks of rivalry and pressure and win-loss records. But there is also something that stands out.
In comparison with some of the more colourful India-Pakistan clashes, Sunday’s ICC Women’s World T20 2018 match between the two neighbours was more on the sedate side. India notched a comfortable seven-wicket win thanks to Mithali Raj’s half-century. But not before some on-field drama.
First the record breaking 93-run partnership between Bismah Maroof and Nida Dar, coupled with India’s own errors, gave the Indian camp some nervy moments. After all, Pakistan had beaten them at home in the last World T20 in 2016.
Then India were given 10 penalty runs even before their batters took the crease after Pakistan were repeatedly warned against running on the pitch. The error cost them a total of 12 runs and opinions were divided on whether the second penalty – on the last ball of the innings – was too harsh. To her credit, captain Javeria Khan conceded that it was unprofessionalism on part of her team as they had endured the same in Sri Lanka as well.
From the Indian perspective, there was drama of both the good and bad kind. The good was Mithali Raj, who didn’t get a chance to bat in the opening match against New Zealand, crafting a brisk fifty while the bad was the rather peculiar fielding.
Controversy, foolhardy errors, some, good. old fashioned batting, quite the combination even if the match didn’t have a close finish.
India’s sloppy fielding
The biggest cricketing takeaway from the match was that Raj is back, after a very brief break from form.
In the warm up matches, she had scored 18 and 0 and, apart from a century against Australia A, had endured a string of poor scores in T20I including in the shock losses to Bangladesh in the T20Is.
So when she was pushed down to No 6 in India’s opener, Harmanpreet was clear about the reason saying, “Mithali didn’t get lot of runs in the first six overs and she agreed to play down.”
But chasing 134 (124 for all intents and purposes) against Pakistan whose bowling, much like India, is packed with spin, the decision was to send Raj to open as she is among the best players of spin.
“Mithali is a key player and we have to use her in a smart way. Pakistan are a good bowling side, she’s very good against spin and that’s why we played her up there, it was a decision by the coach and me.”
This was smart cricket from India, but it also gives them a selection headache. Raj may have had a few tough innings but the 35-year-old is among the most successful batters in T20Is this year.
She has scored over 500 T20I runs this year and along with Suzie Bates, leads the charts of most half-centuries as well. And her experience in invaluable. Remember the series early in the year against South Africa where she was the top scorer in India’s series win.
The next match against Ireland may see another big-hitter opening with Smriti Mandhana, or maybe Raj has made her case. How India handle Raj and her batting position will be key. In a team of big bitters and flashy batting, Raj is the anchor, a role as needed in the shortest format as it is rare.
It will also be interesting to see where she bats in the final group match against Australia, and possibly in the semi-finals, a spot she has almost assured herself with her innings against Pakistan.
On her part, Raj prefers the middle order. “By default, all my years I’ve been in the middle. So I enjoy being there and I would like to continue batting there. I enjoy opening. I enjoy batting No. 3. At the end of the day, I just enjoy batting,” she said, in one of her more memorable quotes.
But the immediate and bigger worry for India will be their mixed-bag fielding, excellent to start with and then descending to poor, pathetic and chaotic.
Early on, Veda Krishnamurthy pouched a superb low catch to dismiss Ayesha Zafar in slips and was Rodrigues produced a stunning direct hit to run out Umaima Sohail before Javeria fell to another run out, all in the Powerplay. Fielding coach Biju George must have been a happy man, despite a drop by Mandhana in the third over.
But what followed soon was bizarre. First Veda spilled a sitter at the boundary when Dar was in the 20s, then Poonam Yadav dropped an equally simple catch when she was in her 30s.
The third was weirdest of them all: Dar top edged and it went straight up but bowler Poonam, inexplicably, backtracked while Harman ran in from cover as the ball just harmlessly fell at the bowler’s feet with three fielders looking on. Dar went on to make 52 off only 35 balls, which could have been game-changing.
A weaker opponent in Pakistan and a low score to chase masked the real damage done on the field. But against tougher oppositions, such rookie mistakes could prove to be the difference between victory and defeat. As Harmanpreet said after the match, fielding will be an area India will work on soon.