The scorecard will show the difference between the victors and the runners-up in the Twenty20 International tri-series final was 11 runs. A close margin, as hosts Australia beat India to set the stage of the T20 World Cup starting on 21s.
But on the field, the result felt imminent from the moment Smriti Mandhana was dismissed in the 15th over and inevitable when Harmanpreet Kaur followed in the next over.
The real difference boiled down to the approach in the last 30 balls of both innings as India struggled to close out with the ball and bat after a solid start. For large chunks of the final on Wednesday, India looked like the team in command. Indeed, the series in Australia should be a big morale-booster for Kaur and Co, given they reached the final on the back of some good cricket.
But the final read like a same old story. After 15 overs, Australia were 108/4, while India were 117/4 in the chase. In the end, Australia finished with 155/6 while India were bowled out for 144.
How the last five overs played out for both India and Australia was a vital example in the art of applying the finishing touch, the manner in which a team closes out a topsy-turvy match.
Over 16 bowled by Rajeshwari Gayakwad – 1 run and 1 wicket
Over 17 bowled by Arundhati Reddy – 5 runs
Over 18 bowled by Deepti Sharma – 13 runs and 1 wicket
Over 19 bowled by Radha Yadav – 9 runs
Over 20 bowled by Gayakwad – 19 runs
Over 16 bowled by Jess Jonassen – 2 run and 2 wickets
Over 17 bowled by Ellyse Perry – 6 runs and 1 wicket
Over 18 bowled by Jonassen – 4 runs and 1 wicket
Over 19 bowled by Megan Schutt – 12 runs
Over 20 bowled by Jonassen – 3 runs and 2 wickets
What does this comparison show? A pattern that is not new to the Indian team. The difference in how the middle and lower order of both teams dealt with the situation is a classic example of where the otherwise potent Indian team has gone wrong in most big matches.
In just the last match of the tightly-fought tri-series between the two finalists and England, India had flipped the script by registering a record chase of 174 against Australia. Then, it was the top order doing the heavy lifting as India won by seven wickets.
In the final, Australia chose to bat and were not allowed to get away with scoring freely as the spinners kept a tight control on the proceedings. Despite dropped catches, misfields, an unfortunate missed run out due to the stump mic cover and missed stumpings, India should have been pleased with the bowling effort… till the last three overs.
When Rachael Haynes walked in at No 7 to join opener Beth Mooney, who top-scored with an unbeaten 71 off 54 balls, the innings was evenly poised. Veteran bat Haynes has not been in the best of form in the series but made the most of her chance in the final with a match-changing 18 off just 7 balls. The six and four in the final over proved to the margin of victory.
The support she provided Mooney coming lower down, is exactly what was missing for India.
The visitors were in control until Mandhana was at the crease, scoring a sublime 66 off just 37 with 12 boundaries. Given how fluid she looked on what appeared to be a pitch on the slower side, the Aussies would have been worried about her carrying her bat as well.
But soon as she tried to go for an aerial shot – no doubt thinking about the scoreboard and encouraged by the burgeoning partnership with Kaur that had crossed 50 at a strike rate of almost 200 – she was dismissed. And then the collapse began.
Even after Mandhana was dismissed, Kaur was in the middle and India required 39 off 30 balls and six wickets in hand. Not so tough for a player like the Indian captain.
But Lanning’s ploy to keep left-arm spinner Jonassen for the death worked wonders. She finished with 5 for 12, the second best figures by an Australian woman as she cleaned up the middle and lower order. Neither all-rounders Deepti Sharma and Shika Pandey nor wicket-keeper bat Taniya Bhatia were able to stick around.
Including Mandhana, India lost 7 for just 29 runs to end the series with a whimper.
The lower order collapse is not a new issue by any means, and the strained approach under pressure reared its head again. The need of the hour was simple – support Mandhana and later Harmanpreet Kaur chase down the gettable target in the last few overs. But the batters, including the three teens in the top order, fell to avoidable shots.
While it’s true that a couple of tactical decisions backfired as well, such as sending in 16-year-old debutant Richa Ghosh at No 3 or giving left-arm spinners Yadav and Gayakwad the final overs with two left-handers on crease, it is the basic errors that will be an area India will need to work hard on before the marquee tournament.
This series is a preparatory one for the T20 World Cup and the learnings should be used by the team management to rectify the more common problem areas.
In T20I cricket, more so than in the other formats, the approach towards the closing stages of the match counts for as much if not more than how strong you begin.
The strategy is crucial – which bowlers to send in, which bowlers to attack, who will take the risks, calling for the singles.
It all comes down to the finishing touch and that is where India fell short in the final despite looking set for a morale-boosting win.
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