Smriti Mandhana, in her first international series as captain, has had a rough outing as India snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on Saturday. But while her captaincy didn’t, a statement she made before the third and final match stood out.
“There is a huge gap between international and domestic cricket. That gap needs to be lessened. The batters we get in domestic, they face very different bowling and fielding attack to international cricket. Our domestic circuit needs to step up. There should be a bit of fearlessness in domestic circuit because if you start playing fearless cricket in the domestic circuit, you are going to play the same way in international cricket”
This quote turned out to be prophetic.
Needing three runs to win off the last over, India lost by a run. Bogged by pressure, Bharati Fulmali – playing only her second international match – played out three dots and gave up her wicket on the fourth; Anuja Patil was out on a golden duck while Shikha Pandey could only manage a single.
But the real criminal act was that Mithali Raj, batting on 30 off 32, was stranded on the other end.
With all due credit to Kate Cross who held her nerve to bowl a game-changing final over, the blame squarely lies with the poor Indian batting. If Fulmali had the experience of handling a pressure situation, if Pandey and Bhatia, who have batted in this series before, been sent ahead of her, if India weren’t dependent on their big-name batters to guide them...
But there is no poetry in this IF as India lost their seventh straight T20I. It was abject but the two consecutive T20I series whitewashes have actually come at a good time. With a break in international cricket coming up, this should be seen as an opportunity for the Indian batting in this format to re-calibrate.
And a re-calibration is desperately needed. In the three matches against England, the batting lineup couldn’t cross 120 even once. Admittedly the team was missing regular captain Harmanpreet Kaur, but even with her, the batting card has not looked robust for a long time.
Almost all of the matches India has won in this format have hinged on the batting heroics of the same old individuals. And the string of losses at home only reinforces the lack of depth in India’s batting.
Not that there hasn’t been an attempt to share the batting load. The team experimented with new faces as well, rewarding domestic performances. Yet neither Priya Punia or Harleen Deol could make their mark as Mandhana’s opening partners while Dayalan Hemalatha, who played all matches in West Indies, was replaced by Fulmali.
But it hasn’t worked, partly due to the deep-rooted issues – lack of depth, exposure, inability to hit powerfully. Building on the domestic structure is a long-term goal, one that will take due time.
For now, what India needs is a structured approach with the squad already at their disposal. With less than a year before the T20 World Cup, this is the time for coach WV Raman and the leadership group of Harmanpreet and Mandhana to chart a course, take tough calls accordingly and most importantly stick with it.
The first step would be defining roles in their batting lineup, the players need to know their place and the task they are supposed to do.
An opener who drops anchor, an opener who can plunder the Powerplay conditions, a link No 3 who can do both, middle-order batters who can navigate singles and boundaries, a batter that can pinch-hit lower down the order. These are the set roles every good T20 team has.
India needs to figure out who fits where. What is all-rounder Deepti Sharma’s place in the team,? Where does wicketkeeper Taniya Bhatia – who has both opened the batting and then shunted to No 8 – fit in the plans? What is the brief to a Hemalatha or Fulmali or Anuja Patil lower down?
Which also brings us to the proverbial elephant in the room – what about Mithali Raj? She almost won you a match with her experience alone. But when Harmanpreet returns, does she continue in the middle order till Australia 2020? For what it’s worth, despite not being a big-hitter, India would do well to have the veteran around till they find a suitably strong replacement.
But even if they don’t and we have seen the last of Raj in the format, India still need to groom a reliable middle order. In ODIs, that is easier with the team batting around Raj for most part. But in the shortest format, someone needs to be tasked with this role. Someone who will stay around for the bulk of the middle overs and not let panic set it at the end. Someone who can clear the infield, and not just look to rotate the strike or hit the bad balls.
It could be captain Harmanpreet or youngster Rodrigues, who have both hit rough patches of form. It could be a Veda Krishnamurthy, if she can bat responsibly and consistently. Or it could be some of the youngsters the team has been trying out.
But whoever it is, the team needs to be given a framework and stuck with it.
And this is also why this slump has come at the right time, because India will now have a chance to test a potential framework in the proposed women’s IPL games. Unlike a single match the last time, the players will have a longer stretch to rub shoulders with international stars and learn from the best.
While 11 months may not be enough, one would hope that India’s T20 trajectory can only go from upward from here till the World T20.