Three hundred and sixty four days after their last international cricket match, India are gearing up for the limited overs series against South Africa, starting Sunday in Lucknow.

The five-match One Day International series is crucial for two major reasons:

  •   It is the Indian women’s team’s first international match in a year, the last being the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup final on March 8 in Australia.
  •   It comes close to a year before the next World Cup – the delayed ODI edition in New Zealand – as last time’s runners look to build their squad for the big event.

ODI captain Mithali Raj reiterated the importance of the series ahead of the opener, saying it is time to get their preparation for the upcoming World Cup on track. The 2021 World Cup was delayed due to the pandemic but India have fallen behind in preparations compared to the likes of England, New Zealand and Australia, who have played more regularly in the last half year.

The focus now, according to the 38-year-old, is on setting their combination right with youngsters coming in.

“This series is very important in that context. We will try to see the composition of the team but at the same time also see that the team as a unit start to get that momentum right,” Mithali said at a virtual media conference on Saturday.

“...the series is very important for two reasons, one is to give the young players the right platform, to give them opportunities in the home condition.

“And at the same time, it’s important to see that the core players get enough game time to get out there and start to develop that rhythm, and as a unit we come together. And take it from there,” she added.

Already, the new selection committee under Neetu David has made several notable changes purportedly to test the bench strength. They have included a slew of new names while excluding some familiar ones in pacer Shikha Pandey, as well as Veda Krishnamurthy, Ekta Bisht and wicketkeeper Taniya Bhatia, who were left out from both the ODIs and T20Is squads.

At present, the biggest area the team needs to explore options in is the middle-order and the pace department, but the squad selection hasn’t reflected that.

India vs South Africa: From Shikha Pandey to Shafali Verma, talking points from ODI and T20I squads

Another name missing from the ODI squad was teen batting sensation Shafali Verma but Raj said that her absence from the 50-over set up was not an indication that she is not in India’s 50-over plans. “She is definitely in the scheme of things. She is in the radar. I think we need to have a little bit of patience and you see her very soon,” Mithali said.

The captain said that the team management will try to ensure that the newcomers in the ODI set up – batter Yastika Bhatia, wicketkeeper Swetha Verma, spinner C Prathyusha and pacer Monica Patel – will likely get a game in the five-match series.

A tough test

However, the task won’t be easy for Mithali and Co even though the hosts have dominated South Africa in recent times, mainly because of the disparity in preparation. The visitors may have had very little time to get used to the conditions, but they go into the series with a lot more match time than the hosts.

The Proteas are fresh from their wins over Pakistan in the ODI and T20I home series last month, where they dropped just one match. India, on the other hand, have barely gotten a few days of net practice with quarantine protocol and the delayed announcement of the series, venue and squad.

The visitors will miss the services of their regular skipper Dane van Niekerk and all-rounder Chloe Tyron for the India tour. Sune Luus will continue to lead the side in Niekerk’s absence.

India vs South Africa women's ODIs H2H

Team Mat India win SA win NR
Overall 22 14 7 1
In India 7 5 2 0

Mithali believed lack of game time won’t be an issue for the players as they have been training in their own way. This won’t be the first long break for the team, who had been out of action for close to seven months after their last ODI World Cup campaign in 2017.

“Clearly they had a game time, but we are playing after a gap. Having said that we definitely have put in the efforts, trained ourselves, have these short camps, four days of sessions here.

“It doesn’t look like we are rusty or anything... I think the girls clearly are quite excited to get on the field and start putting our best performances because it’s time that we start our campaign for the World Cup, and start playing some cricket,” the captain added.

But match readiness is something that can only be assessed on field. Several younger players, including Jemimah Rodrigues and Deepti Sharma, have used the time to play in club tournaments. But it will be a test of the team dynamic as they look to restart their World Cup quest, with WV Raman continuing as coach.

Mithali herself was last seen in action in the away series against West Indies in November 2019 and it has been over 400 days since she played international cricket given she plays just one format.

She said she hoped to carry on her good batting form which had helped India beat West Indies 2-1, but stressed on the need for more mental preparation to come back after a long layoff.

“It’s just like how I prepare myself before any series, it’s been no different. In terms of game time... we’ve not really played any matches as such. But in terms of training or preparation at home or back in the academy, I’ve prepared myself... A lot has gone into the mental setup because clearly we are coming back from a long gap, it means that you have to be strong enough to put your best foot forward,” she said.

“I am definitely looking forward to getting more runs, because the last series against West Indies in 2019 I was in rhythm and I would like to continue from there,” she said.

The series will be with priced tickets with 10% fans expected to fill up the Ekana Stadium in Lucknow and the veteran said she hoped that it becomes a revenue source for the women’s game.

You can watch the press conference here: