Perhaps a turning point in understanding Australia’s faltering form against India in big tournaments is the Harmanpreet Kaur knock that won India the 2017 World Cup semi-final.
Till that point, Harmanpreet had only one good knock of note, a steely but important 60 against New Zealand in a do-or-die group game but Mithali Raj’s hundred and Veda Krishnamurthy’s blitz had stood out more.
In a semi-final against overwhelming favourites Australia, Harmanpreet produced one of the best knocks in women’s cricket to take India through to the final. A year later, Harmanpreet would once again be a thorn in the flesh of the Southern Stars, this time, with a cameo.
A couple of weeks ago, Harmanpreet was once again on the winning side, but it was her big-hitting successor Shafali Verma who set up the win. Australia’s worst fears came true as the team in blue continued to haunt them. Now, it would not be a stretch to say if the tables have turned in India’s favour. Pacer Megan Schutt revealed, in a very un-Australian way, on Friday that she hates playing against the Indians.
The star-studded reigning champions have either lost their wheels early in a run chase or have had the game snatched away from them by one good individual performance: In 2017, it was Harmanpreet, in 2018, it was Smriti Mandhana’s onslaught, and in recent memory, Poonam Yadav’s magical spell. The victory was sweeter considering how well Meg Lanning and Co play spin.
There were signs of Harmanpreet finally getting a bit of confidence under her belt. The Indian captain is going through a bit of a lean patch but did look good during her short stay at the crease against Sri Lanka. Write off the Moga dasher – who turns 31 on the day of the final – at your own peril.
Coming in at No 4, she can be the glue to take India home. And importantly, hand balance to her side, who, despite their dream run have fallen a tad short with the bat so far. One shudders to think about the outcomes of the group games if not for Verma’s buccaneering efforts in the powerplay.
The spin threat
Spinners have played a major role for most teams. Poonam Yadav sits on top of the wicket-taking charts. England duo Sophie Ecclestone and Sarah Glenn, Australia’s Jess Jonassen, New Zealand’s Amelia Kerr have all had their moments.
Poonam has been well supported by Radha Yadav, Deepti Sharma and Rajeshwari Gayakwad, making it India’s most potent weapon. For Australia, Jess Jonassen has gone about her business with minimum fuss. India will remember the left-armer as someone who applied the brakes in the scoring rate in the tournament opener with two quick wickets, following Verma’s trademark early flourish.
However, Aussies were undone by a below-par batting performance in that game. As mentioned earlier, the four-time champions have the skill and experience to counter India’s spin threat. It will be interesting to see how much turn will be on offer at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. But, given the occasion and manner in which the Australian middle-order crumbed in the group game, expect a much better show from the hosts.
This is where Deepti Sharma in the powerplay overs will be vital. A couple of tight overs will force the batters to go over the top and create wicket-taking opportunities – a scenario that will play into Poonam’s hands.
Australia have steadily picked up the pieces since the India defeat. To compound matters, they also had star all-rounder Ellyse Perry ruled out due to injury. The Australians also carry momentum into the summit event having plotted another jailbreak in a rain-affected semi-final against South Africa. India, meanwhile, fortuitously got past England with a ball being bowled in the game.
Lanning, who was due a big score, held her team’s innings together with a battling 49, a superlative effort under the conditions. Remember, they had suffered a blow even before stepping on the field with pacer Tayla Vlaeminck taking no part in the tournament. It shows Australia’s strength in depth. Many from the current roster of players also know what it is to play in a T20 World Cup final.
Practice or no practice, senior players – Harmanpreet, Mandhana and Poonam – will be licking their lips to headline the big-ticket event, widely expected to be the biggest in women’s cricket history.
This is uncharted territory for India while Australia have made a habit out of it. Being outplayed in the 50-over World Cup three years ago will be of little significance. The back-to-back wins in T20 World Cups against the Australians, though, will provide the much-needed fillip that the young Indian side – many of them still in their teens – need in what will be the biggest match of their lives.
India should take note of how the West Indies defeated the Australians, who were much-fancied yet again, in 2016 at the Eden Gardens. Stafanie Taylor’s side had their backs to the wall chasing a record total in a final, a feat they achieved with relative ease. But that isn’t an indicator that history will repeat itself once again. If anything, Australia have the edge here. Their last two wins – beating England in the final in each of them – came with relative ease, but they have managed to be on the right side of humdingers in 2010 and 2012.
India would need more than a thrilling cameo from Verma to apply pressure on their mighty opponents on Sunday. Harmanpreet, Mandhana and the reliable Jemimah Rodrigues have big roles to play. Playing in the daunting cauldron in Melbourne may not faze the Aussies but this Indian side has very little to lose. But the first-time finallists will need a little more than bravado to create history.