After choosing to field first in the second One-Day International against South Africa, Mithali Raj and Co were faced with a target that India had not yet successfully chased in their ODI history.
It was a challenge but also an opportunity to test themselves against a good team in pressure situation albiet in favourable home conditions.
This series is not part of the ICC Women’s Championships but given how few chances they get for international exposure, every match is important. And it was a chance that the Indian batters took with determination.
In the end, India recorded their highest successful chase of 248 with five wickets and two overs to spare, winning the ODI series in Vadodara.
Captain Raj and Punam Raut used their experience to craft a crucial 129-run partnership for the third wicket which laid the foundation of the big chase.
But the match was not without its share of drama as a potential collapse loomed before Harmanpreet Kaur took the team home in her trademark big-hitting style.
Before this match, India’s highest successful ODI run chase came in the 2017 Women’s World Cup Qualifier final against the same opponent.
Then, it was a last-ball thriller with eight runs needed off the last two balls with one wicket in hand. The target achieved with a six and frantic double. But in Vadodara, the equation was better.
Harmanpreet had then walked out to bat at No 5 with India at 186/4, chasing 245. On Friday, the middle-order batter came to the crease with 52 runs needed off 59 ball.
Apart from a second-wicket partnership of 124 runs in 25 overs between opener Mona Meshram and Deepti Sharma in 2017, there was no resistance from the Indians. Raj was not in the team and the lower-middle order collapsed, losing four wickets for 14 runs.
In contrast, the openers set a good platform in Vodadara. Raut, India’s first-choice opener not too long ago, made for a reliable No 3 coming in the Powerplay and Raj did what she does best: scoring runs after dropping the anchor.
From the overs 13 to 41, the duo played a watchful knock with enough flair for timely boundaries. Raj was the aggressor, bringing up her 53rd ODI half-century in 57 balls followed by Raut who got her 12th ODI fifty off 73 balls.
But just like with the first two wickets, the set partners fell in quick succession. At 66/2 and then at 196/4, the Indian innings teetered on the verge of a collapse.
Raj had been dismissed by a slower ball on 66 and soon after, Raut fell for 65 when she tried a slash but was caught. And with Deepti Sharma falling early, India had lost three wickets for 17 runs.
But Harmanpreet kept knocking the runs which eased the pressure off her partner Taniya Bhatia. The vice-captain can score quick and finish matches on most days from the middle order, but a lot depends on what she is given to play with. Too often in the past, Indian batting has collapsed in a domino effect with one batter having to carry the load. But on Friday, everyone chipped in.
Raut, who said that at No 3 there isn’t the same time to adjust, played one of her faster innings with a strike rate of 70. In terms of scores over 50, this innings was among her top-10 knock in terms of strike rate.
And it all came against a team with a solid bowling unit. Shabnim Ismail and Marizanne Kapp are formidable pacers and a world-class bowling combination with the new ball. They have played 94 and 104 ODIs and with a good score to defend, they could have been dangerous. But India’s cause was helped by an early injury to Ismail and the 30 extras conceded by South Africa, especially by Ayabonga Khaka in her first spell where her three overs went for 33 runs.
After the win, captain Raj said that there is a lot of room for improvement. But for now, given how India went about the chase after the bowlers had an ordinary outing, it is a sign that the challenges are being seen as an opportunity.