Leaving Mithali Raj out of the semi-final lineup at the ICC Women’s World T20 against England was always going to leave India open to criticism if they lost. Raj’s 575 runs in 2018 make her the fifth highest scorer this year, and her seven half-centuries in 2018 are the most by any woman in a calendar year. Consecutive scores of 56 and 51 vs Pakistan and Ireland respectively made Raj one of just two batters, the other being player of the tournament Alyssa Healy, to score two half-centuries at the 2018 edition.

In their semi-final, India were well placed on 89/2 before losing 8-23, and crashing to 112 all out. India have never suffered a bigger collapse from the fall of the third wicket in women’s T20Is, and no other side has fared worse from that position in a women’s World T20 match.

Full Text: Mithali Raj’s letter to BCCI CEO Rahul Johri and GM Saba Karim

No one can know whether Raj’s presence would have averted such a collapse, let alone see India to a defendable total, but it’s worth examining the possible reasons for her omission.

What do the numbers say?

While Raj’s weight of runs have been impressive, the perennial concern regarding her T20I game is her strike rate. Since the 2017 World Cup, Raj has been the eighth highest run scorer in the format (575), and has the eighth highest average (35.93) among the top 50 runs scorers in that period.

Since 2017 WC Average SR Balls per 4s / 6s
Mithali Raj 35.93 105.89 7.87 / 90.50
T20I average* 19.70 105.14 9.01 / 61.20
India average 25.81 118.79 7.69 / 39.24
*Top ten sides only

In terms of strike rate however, Raj is 31st among those top 50 scorers. Raj’s SR of 105.89 is virtually identical to the collective average for batters from the established top ten nations (105.14) since the World Cup, and pales in comparison to her teammates. Smriti Mandhana (130.67) is 8th, Jemimah Rodrigues (129.13) 11th, and Harmanpreet Kaur (126.28) 15th on that list.

Collectively, India’s batters rank fourth among the top ten nations, with a SR of 118.79.

And Raj’s SR is lower than seven of her teammates’ overall since the 2017 World Cup.

Dot balls and boundary-hitting

While Raj (44.2%) and Mandhana (43.7%) face a similar number of dot balls, Mandhana’s SR is so much higher (130.10) because she is India’s most consistent boundary hitter. Raj hits neither fours (one every 7.87 balls) or sixes (one every 90.5 balls) above the average rate for India since the World Cup.

The fact that Raj continued to as the opener through India’s ups and downs in the last year might make her numbers look more problematic for India. The average strike rate for openers among the top ten nations is 110.50 (in no small part thanks to Mandhana’s excellent SR).

Raj, who has opened in all but one innings since the World Cup (a first ball duck at number three vs Australia in March being the exception), has a SR of 106.08 as an opener in that period. Among players to have opened five or more times in that period, Raj does have the 2nd highest average (38.33), behind Suzie Bates (52.46).

Since the 2017 World Cup, Raj faces the highest percentage of dot balls in the powerplay (61.1%) of India’s established top order batters. India’s average rate is 53.7%. This inactivity combined with hitting boundaries at a relatively modest rate of once every 8 balls, means Raj has a powerplay SR of just 82.44.

Smriti Mandhana scores at 2.7 runs per over faster than Raj in the powerplay and Jemimah Rodrigues, more than 3.00 runs per over faster.

Powerplay struggles

Even against Malysia during the Asia Cup, Raj was 17* (20) at the end of the powerplay, though she did go on to score a further 80* off 49 in the non-powerplay overs on her way to a then-record score for India.

With an increased onus on making the most of the powerplay, and India looking to compete with the standards set by England and Australia recently, it’s perhaps no surprise that Raj has fallen out of favour, but what doesn’t make sense is India’s choice of opener as replacement.

With excellent career numbers (average 32.92, SR 129.13) and stellar powerplay stats (average 73.00, SR 132.73), the obvious choice would appear to be Jemimah Rodrigues, but India have opted for Taniya Bhatia, whose SR (95.65) let alone her dismal average (9.77) pales in comparison to Raj. While Bhatia does fare slightly better in the powerplay than she does overall, her opening partnerships with Mandhana have been far less successful than Raj’s.

As an opening pair in 2018, Raj and Mandhana averaged 35.55 at 7.35 runs per over. The average for opening partnerships since the World Cup is 28.26 at 6.92 rpo. Bhatia and Mandhana’s three innings together at the top of the order during the World T20 netted 57 runs at 19.00 and 6.33 rpo.

Is there a replacement for Mithali?

Removing Raj from the side robbed India of what was becoming one of their most reliable partnerships. Raj and Mandhana’s 941 runs together are the most by any pairing for India, and the seventh most in women’s T20Is overall. They are the only Indian partnership to have shared more than one century stand (both of which were made this year, along with three fifty partnerhsips), and are among just seven pairs in women’s T20Is to have made two or more 100+ partnerships.

As well as performing well with Mandhana, Raj averages 38.66 at 8.28 runs per over with Jemimah Rodrigues, and overall Raj has been involved in seven of India’s ten highest T20I partnerships since the World Cup. No other Indian batter has been involved in more than five of the top 10.

There are occasional mutterings that Raj’s performances boost her own career stats, at the expense of the team, but that doesn’t appear to be borne out by her stats. Thirteen of Raj’s seventeen T20I career half-centuries have been made in victories. In 2018, all but one of Raj’s record seven half-centuries have been made in wins. The last time Raj top scored in an innings and India lost was 11th July 2015.

While Raj may no longer be the ideal opener, that doesn’t necessarily mean she should be omitted from the XI altogether. Since the 2017 World Cup, in non-powerplay overs, Raj’s dot ball percentage drops to 28.47%, which is lower than the rest of India’s established batters. This backs the Indian team’s call to use Raj in the middle order in the match against New Zealand, although she didn’t get to bat.

Raj’s SR of 127.76 in the non-powerplay overs is just a few points below those of Mandhana and Kaur, and higher than Rodrigues, as well as the middle-lower order batters Veda Krishnamurthy and Anuja Patil.

India could perhaps take a leaf from Australia’s approach to the role of Meg Lanning. Once the unequivocal star of the Southern Stars batting order, Lanning’s role is now more to facilitate the success of those around her. Lanning finished the World T20 with 115 runs at a SR of 92.00 (below Raj’s 103.88 for the tournament), but she played a vital role in Australia’s title win.

On the semi-final pitch that troubled India, Lanning’s circumspect 31 off 39 encompassed a 51-run partnership with Alyssa Healy and 24-run partnership with Ash Gardner that took Australia through the middle overs, and gave Rachael Haynes the opportunity to attack at the death. In a nervy final, any doubts over a Australia win were quashed once Lanning’s calm innings began, and she and Gardner cruised home with an unbeaten 62* partnership.

Raj’s boundary scoring percentage, in comparison to the best in the world is neither great nor abysmal and in a game that is evolving all the time, there is still room for an accumulator.

Visualisation by Anand Katakam
Visualisation by Anand Katakam

The start of India’s World T20 campaign appeared to show a side that looked to be increasingly flexible, but the decision to stick with their ‘winning combination’ in the semi-final, as well as their bowling plans, betrayed a rigidity of mindset.

Despite the stats showing Rodrigues should face as many powerplay overs as possible and that Raj would now be better suited to playing down the order, India have only played one innings in which Rodrigues opened and Raj batted below her.

With the next World T20 two years away and the acrimonious fallout from the semi-final, speculating on the best role for Raj may all be a moot point in any case, which would be a shame. Regardless of how this drama plays out, Rodrigues seems the obvious option to open with Mandhana, but that doesn’t mean Raj has nothing left to offer.

John Leather tweets as @_hypocaust.