A year ago on March 8, 2020 – International Women’s Day – India played the final of the T20 World Cup and lost by 85 runs. It was a heavy defeat triggered by an all too familiar batting collapse but that record-breaking match was seen by many as the start of something new.

The ensuing year, though, changed everything. A global pandemic hit and Indian women’s cricket was put on the backburner by a combination of coronavirus and callousness.

And the effects of that break from the game were evident when India played their first international match in 364 days, suffering a heavy eight-wicket loss to South Africa in the series-opening One-Day International on Sunday.

South Africa’s emphatic victory deserves praise but at the same time, an under-prepared India cannot be condemned for being outplayed by a team fresh off a double-series win.

On paper, this was India’s biggest loss to the Proteas in terms of wickets and balls remaining (59) as Lizelle Lee and Laura Wolvaardt shared the highest-ever opening wicket stand against India in women’s ODIs.

On paper, it was not at all a satisfactory result for the last ODI World Cup’s runners up and a home team with some of the world’s best players.

But on paper alone, the context is lost.

Indian women’s cricket cannot be seen through a straightforward lens in 2021. Because perspective matters when a team is playing together after only four practice sessions in a year.

List: A look at international cricket played since the India women’s team last stepped on the field

Captain Mithali Raj alluded to the fact that confidence can only be gained through game time after the match while vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur said that India lacked match practice and will need time to recreate their lost rhythm as a team.

“...We didn’t get much time where we got to work as a unit. In any format, as a team you need to spend time on the field and get ready for any series.

 ... In the past few years, we had built a rhythm but to create that rhythm again we will need some time. In the next game we will try to do that as a unit.”

— Harmanpreet Kaur after the first ODI

In a sense, this return to international cricket was little more than a practice match for India to assess where exactly they stand as a team.

India had not played ODI cricket since November 2019 and a large chunk of the team hadn’t played any top-flight cricket for a year, bar three matches in the Women’s T20 Challenge in the UAE. Some of the younger players had some club cricket under their belt but in a team sport, collective training counts for a lot.

An off-key performance

This rustiness showed in small but vital moments: shot selection, bowling variations, finding the gaps, body language. Collectively, the team just didn’t click.

Most of India’s wickets fell due to rustiness while a number of scoring opportunities were let go due to tentativeness. Being put in to bat with no scoreboard pressure and on a pitch that looked good for batting with the ball coming on nicely, there was no real rush to play an unnatural game.

Of course, the batting problems aren’t all new. The lack of practice may be a new reality but the collapse had a familiar ring to it.

In Lucknow, the top scorer for India was Mithali Raj (50 off 85), who made a patient half century, followed by Harmanpreet Kaur (40 off 41 balls), who looked in very good touch too. They helped India recover from 40/3 and stitched a good partnership. When the captain and the deputy were batting together, the blueprint for middle-overs ODI batting seemed perfect: the anchor and the aggressor in tandem.

Harmanpreet and Mithali shared a 62-run fourth-wicket stand followed by a 52-run fifth-wicket partnership with Deepti Sharma. But once the last real batting pair was dismissed in the batting powerplay, it was all downhill as India managed just 23 runs in the final 12 overs with not a single boundary.

When South Africa came out to bat, India’s bowling – generally a more settled collective force than the batting – was completely off-key.

With a largely experienced bowling attack in conditions suiting spin, the absolute lack of consistency and wicket-taking deliveries were jarring. The attack was often unable to bowl to the field and gave away far too many easy runs in a small chase.

Jhulan Goswami kept missing the line to be bowled as per the field placements while debutant Monica Patel seemed like she was a deer caught in the headlights.

Crucially, the spin threat of Sharma, Poonam Yadav and Rajeshwari Gayakwad was neutralised by their inability to bowl a tight line. Such was the ineffectiveness of India’s strongest bowling suit that Mithali was forced to go with pace and spin instead of the favoured all-out spin at one time.

Goswami eventually got two wickets late in the day to add to her record tally of ODI wickets but the 38-year-old veteran’s frustration at not getting her deliveries right was evident and sort of encapsulated the kind of day it was for the Indian team.

So at the moment, the team deserves empathy more than criticism. Even being back on the field, must feel like a win.