When the injured Smriti Mandhana was ruled out of the India vs South Africa One Day International series, the big question was about the replacement in what is a top-order heavy batting lineup. By the end of the first match, India seemed to have found the answer in the young opening partnership that powered them to a comprehensive eight-wicket win in Vadodara on Wednesday.
Young Jemimah Rodrigues has been India’s choice as opener in all but one of her 11 ODIs and the expectation was that Mandhana’s former opening partner, Punam Raut, would join her. But when India came out to chase the meagre target of 165, the 19-year-old was accompanied by 23-year-old debutant Priya Punia.
The Delhi batter has opened the innings in the three Twenty20 Internationals she has played but had never reached double digits in international cricket before this match. However, she had broken into the Indian team earlier this year for the three-match series in New Zealand after scoring two centuries in the senior women’s one-day league domestic tournament.
Mandhana’s absence was a big blow but it was also a chance to blood youngsters. Having played no 50-over matches for over six months, the Indian team management decided to change things around – captain Mithali Raj pushed herself down to No 4 and Raut was promoted to No 3 for what looked like a simple chase.
There was no scoreboard pressure for Punia as the Indian bowlers had dismissed South Africa for 164 in 45.1 overs. Pacer Jhulan Goswami, who was returning to international cricket after a while, showed that she has lost none of her ability with 3/33 while spinners Ekta Bisht (2-8) and Poonam Yadav (2-33) complimented her well.
And, on 6, Punia got a life when Marizanne Kapp dropped an absolute sitter. In short, she got all the help she needed.
Yet, early on in India’s chase, she struggled with nerves and was unable to find the gaps. She took her time to settle in even as her partner made rapid runs at the other end.
At 19, Rodrigues is younger than the 23-year-old Punia. But she was effectively the senior partner in the pairing and played the role to perfection. Self-assured and in good knick after a solid season in England’s KIA Super League, she maintained a steady flow of runs. From finding her arc to the quick running between the wickets, the teenager ensured that there was no pressure on her partner.
This allowed Punia to get her eye in and together, the newly-minted young pair shared an opening stand of 83, almost half of the total target.
“I had decided that I will play steadily. I was a little nervous so I thought I will take my time and then play my shots,” Punia said after the match.
Rodrigues struck seven boundaries in her 55 off 65 balls before being dismissed. At that point, Punia was batting on 21 off 59 balls.
This could have been the moment the nerves could have made their presence felt again, but instead, this was when she took the initiative.
“After Jemimah got out, I thought that since I have been on crease longer, I should take charge of the chase and play my shots,” she added.
Proteas’ debutant spinner Nondumiso Shangase, who dismissed Rodrigues in her first over, was lofted for a four in her next over. In the over after that, Punia drove Tumi Sekhukhune for consecutive boundaries with deft touch and timing. After a spate of dots, three fours in a span of seven balls helped her open up and from then on she middled the ball better. Her drives were textbook, and her stance and placement had all the hallmarks of a solid technique.
She may have taken her time but when she wanted to punish the bad balls, she was effective. She brought up her 50 in 89 balls and had eight boundaries overall.
Raut, at No 3, managed just 16 off 38 but she really didn’t need to do much else. And Mithali Raj, who became the first woman to complete 20 years in international cricket, was fittingly at the other end when Punia scored the winnings runs.
“I have seen players like Mithali Raj be calm, choose their balls and hit only the bad balls so I tried to apply that as well,” Punia said.
It was a good plan and executed well on the big stage. Punia’s first outing in the one-day format at home was better than her three T20Is in New Zealand and showed that the team management was right in trusting her potential.
The Player of the Match ended up with an unbeaten 75 (124 balls), the fourth-highest score on ODI debut for India. Crucially, the last time both India women’s openers scored a half-century in a home ODI was way back in 2013.
The outcome was better than what most expected after Mandhana was ruled out and gives India an important option to explore in the future. While the Indian batting lineup is a strong one, the bulk of the runs have mostly always been scored by the top order: Mandhana, Raj, Raut, Rodrigues in the last year and Harmanpreet Kaur when she fires.
Punia gives the team another batter who can anchor the innings and keep the scorecard ticking with a mix of technique and enterprise. Captain Raj also said that Punia lengthens the Indian batting order.
With two more matches to go in the series, it will be interesting to see how the young opening pair fares in different situations. But with a debut like that, she has definitely earned herself more chances even after Mandhana returns.