Such was the brilliance of Stafanie Taylor and and Anisa Mohammed that a victory is no more than what they deserved after the drama-filled first One-day International against India in Antigua. They delivered when their team was on the ropes and helped their side snap an unwanted losing streak against Mithali Raj’s side.
For the visitors, though, it was a familiar story. A theme that has haunted them from the 2017 World Cup final and beyond. We have seen it all before: A gettable target, solid platform set by the top-order, but a couple of middle-order wickets in quick succession and panic sets in. The helpless lower order become mere bystanders as the opposition comes at them sniffing blood.
It is even more disappointing given the rich vein of form that India brought into the game. Just weeks ago, India got the better of South Africa from difficult situations, even defending a paltry total of 146 despite the series being pocketed.
Yet again, the wickets of senior pros Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur in quick succession all but bolted the door. As for the captain, her worst fears came true. Plenty of emphasis was put on the team’s lower-middle order coming to the party in crunch situations.
She had said the same before the South Africa series too. “There will be times when runs from the lower-order batters that will change the dynamics of a team’s win or defeat,” Mithali told Scroll.in just a month ago.
After viewers were put through broadcasting hell in the early hours of Saturday, Mithali and Co seemed to have the game under control. While they were not finding boundaries at will, Jemimah Rodrigues and Priya Punia showed patience and grit to blunt the West Indian attack.
Rodrigues, after a sedate start, had just shifted gears with a 15-run over off rookie pacer Shawnisha Hector. A desperate Taylor turned to spin and the rewards immediately followed. The runs became hard to come by but with plenty of experience and depth in the middle-order, only one team was in the driver’s seat when the equation was down to the visitors needing 107 from the last 20 overs. They also had nine wickets in hand at that stage. Punia was well-set and Punam Raut was growing in confidence.
Alas, Raut committed hara-kiri trying to go for a non-existent single. India were still coasting after Mithali came to the crease. The wickets of Punia and the 36-year-old in the space of 14 balls, helped the Windies go toe for toe in the final ten.
No match is out of reach for India as long as Harmanpreet is at the crease. She had, after all, managed to pluck one of the most amazing catches you will ever see to deny Taylor a well-deserved century. However, it was not her day with the bat.
After earning her money with the bat and ball, Taylor’s shrewd move to hand youngster Shabika Gajnabi the ball reaped rich dividends. The medium-pacer had Harmanpreet caught on the leg side and bowled Taniya Bhatia with a yorker for the ages.
There was little that the tail could do although Jhulan Goswami briefly threatened pull off a stunning heist. Should the senior pacer have taken it on herself to play out the final delivery instead of handing No 11 Poonam Yadav the strike? That, again, was a footnote in what was a mismanaged, miscalculated chase.
Take nothing away from Mohammed and Taylor’s guile with the ball. The skipper led the way by earning one economical over after another; her first six overs cost just seven runs. Trying to up the ante, Mohammed gleefully punctured holes in the Indian middle-order.
Just 18 runs came off overs 40 to 44 and poor Deepti Sharma, running out of partners, had too much on her plate, and was caught trying to swing wildly on the leg side.
Mithali rued this spell after the match: “We could have pushed the run rate a little higher in the middle-overs. This is the experience for young players from both sides to learn. We need to learn how to build partnerships.”
It was yet another steep learning curve for India’s explosive, but fragile middle-order. Maybe chasing under lights was a prospect that even Mithali in her 20-year-old career is relatively new to.
A fit-again Smriti Mandhana alone cannot resolve this conundrum. Maybe it was just West Indies’ day. Even two dropped chances from Punia and an umpiring howler in the penultimate ball of the match couldn’t alter the rest. Maybe, India will just have to wait till Sharma and Bhatia hit their absolute peak. Till then, this contest will go down as another chapter in an already long line of “what might have been” scenarios while chasing.