In both innings of Friday’s ICC Women’s T20 World Cup opener, India were under the pump against the defending champions and hosts in Sydney.
First, after being put in to bat first by Australia, they were struggling at 47/3 with Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma and Harmanpreet Kaur gone and the fragile middle order exposed.
Then, while defending the lower-than-ideal total of 132, Australia were cruising at 67/2 after 10 overs, with Alyssa Healy having found form with a resounding fifty.
History and pedigree suggested that four-times champions Australia were in the driver’s seat for another victory in the tournament they are most successful in.
But in the end, it was a young Indian team that the cricket world sat up and took notice, courtesy of a third straight win against Australia in ICC events.
And the 17-run victory came down to two crucial performances under pressure: a match-winning spell of spin bowling from Poonam Yadav (4/19) and a match-saving knock from Deepti Sharma (49*).
That Sharma and Yadav turned out to be match-winners, and not the captain or vice-captain, might actually be a bigger victory than the margin of win by itself. Bowling out the storied Australia batting line up for 115, navigating the loaded bowling unit for 20 overs with minimal boundaries is a big deal given the situations India have found themselves in, in the past.
A display of character
So how did India get the better of Australia in a nervy, low-scoring match?
Just 10 days ago in the T20I tri-series, the roles were reversed. It was the Indian lower order that collapsed to Jess Jonassen’s spin while the Australian batters seemed to pick runs at will against Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Co.
But in Sydney, Meg Lanning’s champion side suffered their biggest T20I collapse from the fall of the 4th wicket.
The difference in the team sheet for India was the difference-maker on the pitch too. Poonam Yadav was the small change that made a huge difference. The pint-sized leg-spinner missed the tri-series because of a fractured finger, which is still bandaged, but walked into the team in place of left-arm spinner Radha Yadav.
The BCCI’s Woman Player of the Year 2019 is India’s most experienced spinner and her inclusion was always going to be good news. Yet, she was nowhere to be seen for the first nine overs of the chase as Healy chipped off at the target. But her late entry – a ploy used by Harmanpreet in the past – proved to be a masterstroke as she took three big wickets in the span of few deliveries to turn the match on its head.
That she narrowly missed a hat-trick because of a dropped catch and a fifer because the ball bounced twice just added to the drama of her comeback.
Yadav’s wickets were the absolute best batters of the opposition – last T20 World Cups’ Player of the tournament Healy, ICC Player of the Year Ellyse Perry, tri-series final’s game-changers Rachel Haynes and Jonassen, who is no dummy with the bat.
Healy said they prepared for her flight, but just didn’t play her well. That would be an understatement as they were completely done in by Yadav’s variations.
The leg-break-and-googly specialist stands just under 5 feet, but makes up for any perceived drawback of height with the flight on her deliveries. The loop and drift she gets can fox the best.
On the slower pitch in Sydney, it almost went the other way. Her first three balls were singles, the fourth a full toss that Healy dispatched for a six that brought up her half-century. Then came the slow leg break that was chipped right back, giving Yadav a return catch and India the breakthrough.
Haynes and Perry’s back-to-back wickets – both googlies that turned with wicked precision – came after the first ball went for a boundary.
It takes a big heart to bounce back after being hit for runs. Yadav has done that often in the past and she did so again.
It takes even bigger heart to smile about a missed hat-trick for no fault of yours. “This is the third time I missed a hat-trick… but God is great, at least I am here and have recovered from the injury,” she said post-match.
An hour or so before that, India were staring at the worst possible start.
In the 2018 tournament opener, Harmanpreet had scored a scintillating ton to set the stage for the first standalone women’s T20 World Cup.
On Friday, Shafali Verma seemed poised to replicate that with a blistering innings as she piled on 29 runs in 15 balls, including 16 runs in an over by world No 1 Megan Schutt. But from 40/0 after four overs, India stumbled to 47/3 in the seventh over, a rare top-order collapse.
From being wary of exposing the middle order, India suddenly had to bank on them to get a decent total. And that is exactly what Jemimah Rodrigues and Deepti Sharma did.
Although only 19 and 22, the duo have been around for a while and the onus was on them to salvage the innings.
The first order was to not lose wickets, and on that front the youngsters showed a very encouraging sign: the ability to switch to Plan B and run the runs. No big shots, no unnecessary risks till the ship was steadied with a 56-ball stand of 53. When Rodrigues was dismissed in the 16th over, she had scored 26 off 33 without a single boundary.
But Sharma stood firm and tried to accelerate from there. Two of her three boundaries came after Rodrigues’ dismissal as she was left unbeaten on 49 (off 46) – her career-best score in the format. It ensured India got 132, not a challenging total, but a competitive one for an attack loaded with spin options.
Sharma’s gritty 49 followed by Yadav’s crafty 4/19 were not only match-winning performances, but could well be tournament-impacting ones. That India beat Australia in spite of Mandhana and Kaur not contributing with the bat, is perhaps the biggest positive from the opener and sets the stage for more fireworks in Australia.
Follow our complete coverage of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2020 here.