Even before the Twenty20 International series against New Zealand began on Wednesday, much of the chatter surrounded Mithali Raj. The ODI captain was dropped from the last match India played in the format and the subsequent controversy made it one of the biggest talking points in Indian cricket.
To captain Harmanpreet Kaur’s credit, she stuck to her guns and kept the veteran out of the first match, handing 22-year-old Priya Punia a debut. She is building a team with next year’s World T20 in mind and admittedly the 36-year-old does not feature in the plans.
Yet India lost the first match by 23 runs after a batting performance that was almost as dismal as the aftermath of the World T20 fall-out. Smriti Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues’s sublime 98-run stand for the second wicket went in vain as India crumbled from 102 for the loss of one wicket to 136 all out in a chase of 160.
Unsurprisingly, the question arose – would Raj have made a difference? Maybe yes, maybe not. But one thing is clear: India’s batting problems run deeper than her exclusion.
Among the lessons to be learned from the Wellington loss include fielding standards and bowling tactics. But the most glaring folly was India’s batting – both in planning and execution.
That India’s middle order is fragile compared to the top is an established fact. This has prompted Harmanpreet to bat at No 5 to give them some stability and vice-captain Mandhana to say that she wants to stay at the crease longer to take the team home.
But after choosing to chase, the plan backfired when no batter stuck around long enough to get 60-odd runs with eight wickets and eight overs in hand. As stunning as the opener’s record 24-ball fifty was, the collapse thereafter was just as sensational.
With Mandhana giving the team a strong start the most logical way to go about would have been for Harmanpreet, who had scored a century when the two teams faced-off in this format last time, to take control of the chase. But Dayalan Hemalatha came ahead of the skipper as she had the last time, a gamble given it was a challenging total. But even more bafflingly, all-rounders Anuja Patil and Arundhati Reddy were promoted ahead of Deepti Sharma.
Although Deepti bats lower down the order in this format, the 21-year-old is experienced enough with the bat and had acclimatised to the conditions in New Zealand, scoring a steady 52 in the second ODI. Additionally, it would have meant that a left-right combination would have been at the crease after Hemalatha’s departure.
But not only did Deepti come in at No 8, wicket-keeper Taniya Bhatia – who had opened the innings at the World T20 when Raj didn’t – was sent at No 9. Whatever the plan was when the innings started, the quick procession of wickets should have prompted a re-think. Yet, two batters who have played in the top-order were sent in too late to make any difference in face of mounting asking rate.
And the scoreboard pressure then got Harmanpreet as well, who was stumped soon after slamming a six on one knee.
It wasn’t a great dismissal, but none of them were. In the shortest format, you have to live by the sword. But some of India’s dismissals were unforgivable given the situation.
With Harmanpreet at the other end, Hemalatha, Patil and Reddy had to make sure they rotated strike and gave the skipper enough balls to play her shots. However, all three fell cheaply – Hemalatha and Patil is virtual identical manner to Tahuhu-Kerr. Even Rodrigues, who had stitched a solid knock with Mandhana, fell to a poor shot soon after her senior partner left, leaving two new batters at the crease.
These are important aspects in a run chase, something that the team knows well and has worked on in the past. This is the same Indian team that had beaten Australia at the World T20 not too long back and all but pummeled the White Ferns in the same tournament in West Indies.
Momentum and cricketing sense may be intangible concepts, but they separate great teams from the good ones. And the Wellington T20I will be an important lesson for the young Indian batting order and the think tank as they prepare for bigger battles in the future.