India’s chances at the upcoming ICC Women’s T20 World Cup, like the team’s recent results in the shortest format, are evenly poised.

Since the 2018 ICC World T20 in West Indies, Harmanpreet Kaur and Co have played 20 matches in the shortest format, winning 10 and losing 10. In the four bilateral series they have played, they have won two (home against South Africa, away against West Indies) and lost two (away against New Zealand, home to England.) The one tri-series they played – a precursor to the World Cup with Australia and England – all three teams won and lost the same number of games in the league stages before the world No 1 Aussies emerged the winner in the final.

The semi-final exit at the 2018 World Cup started a seven-match losing streak but that was followed by impressive series wins against South Africa and West Indies. And even in the tri-series, after starting with a win and then suffering two losses, India stunned the Aussies in a record run-chase.

All these results indicate that predicting how this Indian team will perform is not the easiest of tasks.

The final of that series against Australia is perhaps the more telling indication. That match had almost every aspect that will affect India’s campaign at the World Cup – the things that will work for the team and the ones they need to work on. Efficient bowling from the spin-heavy artillery, fielding lapses, a confident start with the bat, the tendency of the youngsters to go for poor strokes under pressure, a big knock from a batting mainstay, a quick collapse.

India ended up losing the final by only 11 runs, after conceding 19 runs in the final over, and that is exactly the kind of margin that marks the difference between cup and lip.

Steadying things after a rocky 2018

At the 2018 World T20, India had made good on the revolution promised after the runner-up finish at the 2017 ODI World Cup. Harmanpreet and Co were unbeaten in the group stage, including wins over New Zealand and eventual champions Australia. But in the semi-final against England, India got all-out for 112 in 19.2 overs, losing their last eight wickets for 23 runs.

Of course, that World Cup exit had far-reaching and unsavoury consequences as a war of words between Mithali Raj and then coach Ramesh Powar began, which led to a rift and played a part in Raj’s eventual retirement from the format.

In several matches since, the absence of a player like Raj has been felt in the middle order, but the think-tank has stuck to their guns and rebuilt the T20 team as a youth-centric one.

Power of youth, spin to win

The average age of the current squad is under 23 with four teenagers, including two 16-year-old prodigies fast-tracked to the national team: Shafali Verma has already shown her big-hitting prowess and Richa Ghosh is also known for her fearless batting. Meanwhile, Jemimah Rodrigues and Radha Yadav are playing their second T20 World Cup and are still only 19.

This youthful energy is an important strength for India as despite the inexperience, they bring in a fresh and fearless quality that makes it a very dynamic unit.

Another big advantage India have is their bankable spin bowling unit. The multi-pronged attack – Deepti Sharma’s off spin, Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Radha Yadav’s left-arm spin, and the leg break of Poonam Yadav — is arguably the best in the world. Additionally, Harmanpreet Kaur has been turning her arm far more regularly in recent times and Rodrigues as well as Harleen Deol are spinning options as well.

The bowling combination will be a crucial question for the team management. A look at India’s numbers over the last year clearly show spin is their strength.

In the 20 matches played, 93 wickets have been taken by spinners while 23 were taken by pacers. Even accounting for the obvious difference in the number of bowlers in each category, this is a big difference in success and strike rate.

Such striking numbers suggest that India should go for a four-spinners-one-seamer policy. Admittedly, Australian conditions call for more than one seamer in the playing XI, but India’s strength in the recent past has been the spin quartet. While Shikha Pandey, the most experienced pacer of the lot, is an automatic pick, India have been playing Arundhati Reddy with her. With Pooja Vastrakar fit again, India have another seam-up option. But Reddy or Vastrakar have not inspired a whole lot of confidence with their performances.

Batting woes

A glaring chink in the Indian armour is the approach from the middle and lower-middle order. The weakness is one most teams will go after, given the propensity for a collapse.

When Australia head coach Matthew Mott called India the most feared batting lineup at the World Cup, he was probably referring only to the top four. With Verma and Smriti Mandhana at the top, India have a solid opening combination that balances attack with consistency. At one down is the dependable Rodrigues who has the game to both attack and lay anchor with technical efficiency. In Harmanpreet, India have one of the most destructive batters in world cricket on her day. Each of the four are capable of winning games for India with the bat.

To get a shot at history, Smriti Mandhana will need to be India’s sword and shield

But then, problems start. On paper, India has a deep batting order – Veda Krishnamurthy has been around a long time, Deepti Sharma and Shikha Pandey are both all-rounders, as is Pooja Vastrakar, while wicketkeeper Taniya Bhatia was actually used as an opener in the last World T20.

However, rarely have they shown the onus to lead the batting charge. By now, the collapses are familiar and the Indian think-tank is well aware of this. Mandhana was honest when she said the middle order needs protection which makes it the top four’s job to bat 20 overs. Coach WV Raman accurately summed it up when he said: “Even if the top order is firing, the winning runs will be the 20-odd runs that the lower order gets in the end overs.”

If Raman can address this area and India get in those extra 20-30 runs, especially in a run-chase, it could be game-changing for this side.

Plenty of promise

As concerning as the middle order’s form is, the top order’s recent performances have been just as encouraging. Verma has taken to the Australian conditions well after a few hiccups, including the A tour earlier this year, while Mandhana always seems to be batting on a pitch different from the others. The duo gives India the biggest opportunity to make a mark in the tournament.

The opening combination is still new but in the 13 matches they have opened the batting together, they have scored 511 runs at an average of over 42, including two century partnerships. If these two can click, India can put together genuine big scores and more importantly, run chases won’t be as big a problem as they once were.

In the shortest format, matches can be decided in the space of a few overs and for all the potential they possess, India’s chances will come down to how and who manages the crucial moments under pressure. If one of the top players can guide the team through, this unit is capable of going the distance.