If there were points for learning from past mistakes and doing better in subsequent matches, India would have gained several in the recently-concluded Twenty20 International series in New Zealand. But as it stands, Harmanpreet Kaur and Co ended the tour with a 0-3 loss against the hosts, despite being in a position to win all matches.
In the final match on Sunday, India showed improvements in all three aspects of the game and almost pulled off a stunning last-ball win.
Chasing 162, Smriti Mandhana made a career-best 86, but her dismissal slowed down things as the Indian middle-order failed to capitalise on the momentum.
India were in exactly the same situation four days back. Chasing 160, India were 102/1 but Mandhana’s wicket triggered a sensational collapse as they folded for 136. In Hamilton though, the team stayed in the hunt till the end.
This progress is an indication of how this young team is evolving but while this is just the first series since India’s semi-final loss at the 2018 World T20, it is also among the only preparatory ones in seaming conditions ahead of the next ICC event. The 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia is exactly a year away and this series loss in New Zealand should give the Indian team a blueprint on what they need to do to be a more consistent force in the shortest format.
Here are the key takeaways from the series:
Mandhana stands out but needs support
With her vast reserve of talent, repertoire of shots and frequency of scoring big runs, ICC Player of the Year (2018) Mandhana was a standout performer in almost every match she played on this tour. She scored 105, 90*, 1, 58, 36, 86 runs in six matches. But as good as Mandhana is, she still cannot score the runs for the rest of the team.
On Sunday, Deepti Sharma (who was pushed down to No 8 in the first match) and Mithali Raj (who was not part of the team of the first two matches) scored quick-fire 20s to take India close in the last match, but the effort cannot paper over the glaring batting problems:
1) Captain Harmanpreet Kaur’s inconsistency
2) The middle order’s lack of depth
The issues are inter-connected, of course. India has been reliant on the two-three big names to shoulder the burden of runs for a while now and Harmanpreet’s indifferent form has severally affected the overall score. Her 24 runs tally is the lowest total in a series in which she’s batted three times. She has been playing a floater to add more weight to the middle order but apart from a century and 43 at the World T20, has not made a significant contribution with the bat in recent times.
In the last match, Jemimah Rodrigues showed that she is capable of shouldering a lot more responsibility for the middle order but none of the other youngsters have inspired similar confidence with the bat – Dayalan Hemalatha, Priya Punia, Taniya Bhatia are still new at the level while Anuja Patil, Deepti, Arundhati Reddy are not specialist bats and old hands Veda Krishmanurthy and Mona Meshram are erratic at best.
Which brings us to the big question – is there anyone who can fill the Mithali Raj-shaped hole in the batting order?
If reports are to be believed, Raj may call time on her T20I career soon, which leaves India has only a year and a handful of potential T20I matches to groom a strong, consistent bat. Punia maybe her replacement at the top of the order but it will take a lot for a player to fill her boots as an anchor. That’s a role Raj could still fulfill for this side on the evidence of what we saw on Sunday.
Expanding the pace attack
In the second and third match, India did something different, something they hadn’t in the last 10 matches – they played two pacers in Arundhati Reddy and Mansi Joshi.
This is not unusual but it showed that the Indian think-tank is not as averse to changing the best laid plans as they let on to be.
Spin bowling has always been India’s strength and without spearhead Jhulan Goswami, Harmanpreet has unilaterally gone in with three-spinners-one-pacer in almost all conditions. The combination of Deepti Sharma, Radha Yadav, Poonam Yadav and Anuja Patil or Harmanpreet or Rodrigues has almost always proved effective but having two young seamers in tandem gives the Indian attack an extra edge. It gives a chance to mix up things when the bowling plan and spinners’ lines get predictable.
In Auckland, Reddy was the game changer with her two-wicket over while Joshi was the most economical bowler in Hamilton. With conditions expected in Australia bound to be different to the ones in Caribbean last year, it’s time to groom the two pacers to bowl in tandem while expanding the bench where Shikha Pandey was the only other pacer in New Zealand.
After the first match, streaming platform Hotstar made a video compilation of India’s sloppy day on the field. In the second match, they lost off the last over gifting runs in overthrows and then missing a direct hit which gave up the series. The third match saw some improvement but not enough to trouble the hosts. Wicketkeeper Bhatia’s usually reliable gloves faltered a couple of times as well while close in-fielding chances were squandered.
Fielding has rarely been India’s strong suit in the 50-over format, but in the shortest version, India have to utilise their bunch of young players on field to make it an extra bowler like, for instance, Australia do. A fielder as committed as Harmanpreet must demand more life on field from a team that is fitter than almost all previous Indian teams.
In margins as small as in the last two matches, a run here and a catch there can make all the difference. For India to be a consistent threat in the shortest format as they are in ODIs, fielding coach Biju George will have to exponentially up the level of his charges.