Harmanpreet Kaur had started the 2018 ICC Women’s World T20, the first standalone edition, with a bang when she scored a 51-ball 103 against New Zealand. Building on a start like that, India stormed into the semi-final with an unbeaten run, including beating world No 1 Australia.
But what started with a bang, ended with a whimper as a lacklustre India were downed by England in the semi-final. There is no nice way to say it: India were poor in all three departments and played nothing like a team that had beaten Australia just days ago.
In a way, Harmanpreet started the second semi-final with a bang as well, albeit as captain when she announced that Mithali Raj, the country’s highest T20I run-getter, was not playing. Rested due to injury in the inconsequential game against Australia, Mithali was kept out to maintain a “winning combination”, Kaur said.
However, the outrageously bold decision by the captain and India coach Ramesh Powar backfired as India collapsed to 113 all out, losing the last eight wickets for just 23 runs.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20 but India did not really need to use hindsight when they had the benefit of foresight having seen the sluggish pitch in the first semi-final. Australia beat West Indies by 71 runs on a pitch that made shot-making tough against the stopping and skidding ball and even a target as slow as 130 was defendable.
Raj’s exclusion was not the only questionable call from India. From the batting unit’s shot selection to bowling changes to field settings, nothing went right as India were once again let down by their one-dimensional tactical approach.
No Plan B
Seeing the conditions in the first match, India’s approach should have been re-calibrated. Adapting to the slow Antigua and Barbuda pitch, after playing all matches in high-scoring Guyana, was crucial. Australia did that well, as did England coming from St Lucia. But India couldn’t, even playing second.
“Playing at 8 pm gives you a lot of thinking time,” Amy Jones said after the match. “We were thinking about it, planning on how to play their high-quality spinners, and the plans worked.”
And this is where India were hit the hardest, they just didn’t have a Plan B.
While there is no guarantee that her inclusion would have seen India bat better, leaving a veteran out out to maintain the same combination makes little sense because she was replaced by bowling all-rounder Anuja Patil ,which left a gap in the batting lineup.
If Raj was left out because of her low strike-rate, then it needs to be pointed out that she has scored faster than Taniya Bhatia this year and more consistently than Veda Krishnamurthy and Dayalan Hemalatha. If it was a question of accommodating Patil for an extra bowling option, surely she could have found a spot in the middle order as she did in the first game.
Additionally, the pitch demanded a Raj-like approach to batting. Case in point: Australia captain Meg Lanning’s 39-ball 31 in the first semi-final was a useful innings in the larger scheme of things.
After the match, the captain stood by the call, saying, “Whatever we decided, we decided for the team. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Except, in all fairness, it was too big a stage to make a statement like this.
A World T20 semi-final, your first in eight years, is no place to experiment with a young team and leave the most experienced cricketer out. The way the lower-middle order got out showed how important it could have been to have someone hold an end.
Familiar bowling woes
Admittedly, 113 is not a par score for bowlers to defend even on a slow pitch. But it could have been exploited given the kind of attack India possesses.
England’s spinners Sophie Ecclestone, Danielle Hazell, Katie Gordon and Heather Knight took all of the seven wickets that fell to bowlers – three were run outs – and before that, Australia had spinners take six wickets as well.
But as has been pointed out earlier, India’s bowling plan can be too simplistic – outside off with an off-side-heavy field, slow in the air to take the pace off, inadvertently giving a smart batter enough time to get into position to play their shot.
Against New Zealand, the spinners had 194 runs to defend and their profligacy didn’t show as much even against an off-side-heavy field, allowing players to move across and sweep into vacant leg side region.
But against a more attacking team with little scoreboard pressure, this tactic didn’t hold as Nat Sciver and Amy Jones made merry, taking regular singles and piercing the gaps when the occasion arose through their 92-run stand.
A more aggressive, wicket-to-wicket line may have cramped the batters for space perhaps and opened a few more chances. But with the predictable line and flight and field set, it was too easy find the ropes regularly enough to keep the required run rate quiet. Sciver was especially brutal between mid-off and mid-on and barely played any dots.
Additionally, the bowlers were not rotated enough, or at all. Pacer Arundhati Reddy was not even given an over, Hemalatha and Jemimah got just one and Harmanpreet didn’t bring herself in as she had done against Ireland and Australia when things didn’t go according to plan.
India have a pack of spinners who can get the wickets and it has been their strength in all conditions. But there is a lot of work yet to be done in the spin division, not just variations, speed, and angles, but also game plan and presence of mind.
Overall, even apart from the the tactical blunders, the team betrayed nerves yet again and didn’t click together like it had just in the last match. But it is the same team and management that kick-started India’s best ever T20I streak, winning eight matches in a row bookended between the shocking Asia Cup loss to Bangladesh and the insipid semi-final to England.
India learned from the former and will learn from the latter as well. In fact, England themselves were in similar position after the 2016 World T20, and look where the young team has gone since then with back-to-back finals.
Meanwhile, Raj may have played her last T20I match and definitely her last World T20I match for India. Only consolation, she got back-to-back half centuries and Player of the Match awards in her last two games.