For the second day running at the McLean Park stadium in Napier, India registered a thumping win over New Zealand. The first one-day international on Thursday between the women in blue and the White Ferns followed pretty much the same pattern as the one on Wednesday when Virat Kohli and Co took the lead in the men’s series.
New Zealand batted first and failed to put up a challenging score at a venue where batting first is traditionally seen as an advantage. India’s spinners played a big role in that happening. And then, with hardly any scoreboard pressure, the left-handed opening batter top-scored in a chase that ended before the 35-over mark.
For Mithali Raj and Co, the three-match ODI series (part of the ICC Women’s Championship) could not have gotten off to a better start.
While the headlines will be dominated by the 190-run partnership that Smriti Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues shared, the win was actually made possible by a disciplined bowling effort.
Deepti Sharma’s crucial role
When the scoreboard read 61/0 in the 14th over, Mithali Raj must have quietly wondered if she did the right thing by asking New Zealand to bat on what seemed to be a good batting wicket. Two of the best batters in the world, Suzie Bates and Sophie Devine, were looking well set after negotiating a tight early spell from Jhulan Goswami. Coming into this series after a good run of form in the Women’s Big Bash League, the duo could have pushed on from their good start to put India on the back foot.
And both of them were back in the pavilion by the 17th over, thanks to one woman: Deepti Sharma.
First, it was a brilliant piece of fielding from shot cover that saw Devine get caught out when trying to pinch a quick single, something both the openers were doing with great ease up until then. But this time around, the White Ferns veteran paid the price for taking it a tad easy and underestimating Sharma’s rocket arm. She came rushing in, scooped the ball up with her right hand, made a quick 360-degree turn and rattled the stumps at the non-striker’s end. Devine was caught millimeters short.
Then, a couple of overs later, Sharma sent Bates back with some help from Goswami, who took a sharp catch at short midwicket. The off-spinner reaped the reward for bowling dot balls with her nagging stump-to-stump line and putting Bates under pressure. The attempted release shot ended up being a mistimed slog sweep.
Just like that, India were on top.
Spinners deliver in unhelpful conditions
Sharma’s initial spell was preceded by Ekta Bisht’s, who was asked to bowl as early as the seventh over because Shikha Pandey was struggling to find her rhythm under the cloudy skies. In trying to swing the ball too much, she had little to no control over the line of her deliveries and that forced Raj’s hand to resort to spin much earlier than she could have anticipated.
But from there, Bisht and Co do what they do best, usually in subcontinent conditions. They picked up wickets in regular intervals, bowled tight lines, barely offering any pace to work with. The dismissal was Maddy Green summed it up — she went for a slog sweep against Yadav and was into the shot so early that she had completed it and had time to look back when the ball reached the stumps.
With some sharp wicket-keeping from Taniya Bhatia, Yadav, too, made her presence felt despite going for a few more runs than she would have liked. It was only an uncharacteristic drop from Mandhana that prevented her from getting a four-for.
The result of that was combined figures of eight wickets for 101 runs in 29 overs between the trio.
As Raj said after the match, the spinners did well in unhelpful conditions, because there was hardly any turn on offer. They achieved it by varying their pace and tossing the ball up, landing in the right areas. On a cloudy day when all eyes were on Goswami and Pandey, it was once again the spinners who did the trick for India.
A special partnership
When Mandhana was declared ICC’s player of the year for 2018, Rodrigues posted a congratulatory message on social media that stood out for one reason: their off-field chemistry.
When Rodrigues was going through a tough phase before the Sri Lanka tour in an otherwise breakthrough year, she was helped by Mandhana. The duo evidently share a great relationship and that was on full view in Napier after the match when Mandhana joked that she was going to get a hard time from Rodrigues for throwing her wicket away with three runs left to get.
With barely any scoreboard pressure, Mandhana and Rodrigues went about the run-chase with such ease that the commentators remarked it felt like an open net session. Except from a few jitters in the first five overs (couple of LBW calls and dodgy running between the wickets), they were barely troubled by the New Zealand bowlers.
While Mandhana kept up her strike rate beyond or slightly less than 100 throughout her innings, Rodrigues played the role of the accumulator. While Mandhana cleared the boundary three times in her innings, Rodrigues rarely hit anything in the air during her career-best 81*. The result was two young batters complimenting each other beautifully.
This was only the fourth time the two had opened the batting in the 50-over format and they now have two century-plus partnerships. The 190-run stand on Thursday was not just India’s best opening partnership against New Zealand, but the best by any team against the White Ferns in the history of the game.
It’s still early days, but these two good friends are starting off on an on-field partnership that could hold Indian cricket in good stead for a long time.
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