“Finally, we have broken the jinx of winning the last match of a series. It started from South Africa [in February 2018]”
This comment by India captain Mithali Raj after beating South Africa 3-0 in the One Day International series seemed to have been made in jest, but it suggested that this may have been a talking point in the dressing room.
Since the heavy loss to South Africa at the 2017 World Cup, the Indian ODI team has turned a revolutionary corner. While India had not swept an ODI series since they beat West Indies in 2016, this was the fifth consecutive series win for the World Cup runners up.
In fact, Australia are the only team to have beaten India in an ODI series since 2017 as Raj and Co have won in South Africa, Sri Lanka and New Zealand as well as two series at home against world champions England.
There is no other way to see this: India are No 2 ODI side in the world, by ranking and by performance.
Yet, the clean sweep seemed to be an achievement the team really wanted and they got there in the end. In the preceding Twenty20 International series, India took a 3-0 series winning lead but fell to their biggest defeat in the final match.
But in the last match of home series against South Africa, the streak was snapped as the hosts prevailed in a low-scoring thriller on Monday. After collapsing to 146 all out, the Indian spinners starred as India successfully defended the low score with the veterans coming to the fore.
While the batting effort in the final match – after winning the toss – left a lot to be desired but the series win showed a lot of positives for the team, which was playing international cricket after a six-month break.
From the successful return of the ODI specialists to Deepti Sharma’s ever-improving bowling and the quick-running between the wickets by the openers; there were many encouraging sights, big and small.
Ahead of their next assignment in the West Indies, a series which will carry ICC Women’s Championship points, India got some crucial match practice, a look at the chinks in their armour and players who returned to the set-up after a long break got a boost. In the process, they also scripted their highest successful run chase in ODIs.
Here’s a look the biggest takeaways from the series:
Back-up opening options
Even before this series began, India were dealt a big blow when opener Smriti Mandhana was ruled out with a foot fracture suffered during practice. The best Indian batter on recent form, the left-hander has been the guiding light for the team in crunch moments.
The big questions facing India was who could fill the Mandhana-shaped void in the batting order? In her relatively short career so far, teen Jemimah Rodrigues has done well enough to seal her spot at the top of the order. But without a senior presence at the other end, how would she fare?
But in the very first match of the series, debutant Priya Punia stepped up with aplomb to guide the Indian chase, forming a fruitful partnership with ‘senior’ Rodrigues. In the second match, Punam Raut – a first-choice opener until a year ago who has played all but 10 matches in other positions – was the match-winner batting at No 3.
Although India lost both the openers Punia (zero) and Rodrigues (three) in the first two overs of the third ODI and Raut couldn’t make a significant contribution, the three have shown that for now, India have back-up opening options if Mandhana takes longer to recover.
Seniors stepping up in ODI set-up
After the successful T20I series, the longer format saw the return of the veterans Raj, Jhulan Goswami, Ekta Bisht and Punam Raut. They currently figure only in the 50-over scheme of things and in each of the three matches, one of the seniors stepped.
First, Raj became the first woman to complete 20 years in international cricket. The 36-year-old made her ODI debut against Ireland on June 26, 1999 and has played 206 ODIs till now, the most by a woman.
The ODI captain, who returned to the helm after announcing her retirement from the shortest format, continued her prolific run-making 88 runs in the series, including her 53rd half-century. Her match-winning partnership with Raut in the second match laid the foundation for India’s highest successful run chase.
But before she could bat, the series began with a first-ball wicket from Goswami. As is her wont, she bowled a stunning ball to dismiss the T20I series highest run-getter Lizelle Lee. She finished the first match with figures of 3/33 in just seven overs as South Africa were skittled for 164. She went wicket-less in the second and missed the third, however.
Bisht, player of the match in the nail-biting final match, finished as the highest wicket-taker of the series with seven dismissals, with a match-winning 3/32 in the final ODI.
Few sides possess the kind of experience India has in the ODI set-up and it showed in crunch moments against South Africa.
Harmanpreet’s crucial 30s
Despite her heroics in the shortest format, Harmanpreet Kaur hasn’t enjoyed a consistent run in ODIs of late. But against South Africa, her batting was pivotal in the second match. Her unbeaten 39 (off 27) and 38 (off 76) were her highest ODI scores since an unbeaten 55 in South Africa in early 2018.
Granted she didn’t bat in five of matches she has played in the last two years and missed the series against England with an injury. But even in the chances she had got, the 30-year-old has been unable to get a big score in the 50-over format.
However, her two 30s in the last week were a sign that her batting is gaining consistency. In the second match, she was all power and boundaries as she tried to chase down 248. In the third, she adapted to the slower pace and grafted for runs while stitching a crucial partnership with Shikha Pandey. In both cases, she played the role of a senior batter to perfection and this will give both her and the team management a lot of confidence ahead of the West Indies series.