Underprepared was the buzz word doing the rounds from as early as the first match and turned out to be the defining factor in India’s 4-1 One-day International series loss to South Africa in Lucknow.

Playing their first international match in a year and an ODI series after nearly 15 months, the lack of game time was sure to affect Mithali Raj and Co against an opposition coming off twin-series wins. No cricket for a year and four training sessions before a series is no way ideal preparation. But what stood out was just how much of a difference there was between their level of cricket.

The scorecards made for grim reading: Apart from one nine-wicket win while chasing, India batted first. They were bowled out for under 200 twice and in the other two games, couldn’t defend totals of 248 and 266.

As important it was to have the team back on the field with only one year to go for the World Cup, the series result was a stark reminder of the time they spent away. And, as much as the lack of match practice undercut’s India loss, the lessons from it should be given utmost attention.

Here are the biggest takeaways from India’s ODI series loss

Positions and partnerships

Mithali Raj pointed out bowling and fielding as areas of improvement after the match, but that assessment is not entirely accurate.

One of the biggest differences between India and South Africa were batting partnerships. While the Proteas built a stand for virtually every wicket, batting collapses came back to haunt India. South Africa registered their highest ever ODI chase on the back of each of their top four getting a half-century. That is a very rare occurrence for India, even when fully prepared. It was pointed out throughout the series by players as a decisive factor and it is something that the batting collective has to work on strongly.

One of the more jarring stats was that Wednesday’s 26/1 was the highest opening partnership for India in the series. Starting troubles and the long layoff are understandable, but to not have a single good powerplay for both openers is pressure on the team right at the start.

The failure to back Smriti Mandhana from the other end puts the prolific opener under undue pressure. Jemimah Rodrigues’s poor patch continued with single digit scores in the first three games and she was dropped thereafter. Priya Punia looked more positive and settled in the role, despite two brief outings, while No 3 Punam Raut, Mandhana’s old opening partner, practically faced the new ball in every game and looked good.

This raises questions over batting positions, which are further complicated with Mithali coming in at No 4. The early wickets meant Raut and Mithali’s scoring-rates were pegged back even further, and their acceleration in ODIs is anyway not the best.

Should then Rodrigues be used lower down so there is a balance between the hitters and the anchors? Should Raut’s steadiness be allowed to complement Mandhana at the top?

In the final match, India experimented by sending Harmanpreet Kaur at No 4 to allow her the time to settle in. But the fall of quick wickets meant Mithali was in a ball later and the swap meant little. However, it was a good call given India’s batting tends to lose teeth after her and the batting powerplays are barely optimised.

Benefit of big-hitting batter

This is where India sorely miss the vital presence of a big-hitter.

In all fairness, this was expected to be a learning even before the series began. The absence of Shafali Verma in the ODI set-up was widely questioned and even dropping someone like pace-bowling all-rounder Pooja Vastrakar, who is known for her lower-order cameos, is worrying.

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The Indian ODI batting lineup doesn’t really have many consistent big hitters, bar Harmanpreet. Veda Krishanmurthy is erratic at best and was therefore dropped, and no one else was pencilled in for the role.

The glaring imbalance was evident from an underrated record in the third ODI, when India’s No 3 to 6 batters all scored 30+ runs in the same ODI innings for the first time.

This then puts the batting styles of Mithali Raj and Punam Raut under the scanner. The two were India’s standout batters this series and the debate here is whether they should be criticised for strike-rate when they played anchor innings or should the lack of impetus while batting around them be questioned.

This is a blurred line given India’s history of batting collapses and the team management clearly wants everyone to stick to their natural approach.

Of course, the argument is that at least one of the batters, perhaps Mithali who has achieved virtually everything, should try and pace her inning more quickly. As of now, India have four batters whose career strike-rate batting in the top four is under 75 (Raut, Mithali, Harmanpreet, Deepti) Granted, two of them don’t play in the top four often, but this is definitely an area India has to work on in a big way.

Bowling and bench strength

India’s bowling this series was inconsistent and lacked structure as the two successful chases of over 240 highlight.

The bowling calls seemed inexplicable, right from the squad selection to the playing XI. Much has been said about the absence of veteran Shikha Pandey, who was dropped to give other pacers a chance (still doesn’t explain Vastrakar’s exclusion). Yet, Mansi Joshi and Monica Patel did not play a game together, even when Jhulan Goswami was injured with India choosing to debut spinner Radha Yadav instead.

Apart from Goswami in the sole win, not one senior bowler stood out with consistent strikes. When India were defending 248 and South Africa need 53 runs in 48 balls, Mithali had virtually no mainliner to turn to after almost bowling out Goswami and Gayakwad.

Here’s the kicker: India’s first-choice could take more than five wickets only once in five matches. And this was a heavily altered South Africa. The batting lineup without regular captain Dane van Niekerk and Chloe Tryon, who were injured before coming to India. Sune Luus didn’t play two matches while Trisha Chetty was absent in three and Lizelle Lee was left out in the final match.

The visitors showed their batting depth and that was a reminder of just how poor India’s bowling bench is, even as efforts were made to give newcomers a chance.

What is Plan B for spinners?

A large part of this bowling performance was down to the spinners’ failure. When the hosts’ biggest strength proved to be their biggest letdown, there was no Plan B.

Poonam Yadav went wicketless in four games for the first time, Deepti Sharma got just one, Radha Yadav had a forgettable debut and Harmanpreet had to fill in regularly. Only Gayakwad had some impact and was the only one retained in the final match.

This series saw Indian spinners’ worst strike-rate in a bilateral series and the third overall after the 1978 and 2013 World Cups. What then is the alternative?

Yes, South Africa were especially clever while dealing with India’s spinners, staying deep in their crease and using their back foot. But the inability to build on the scoreboard pressure with basic, tight lines in the slog overs will be a blow to the team’s psyche.

India need not look further than the last match where the Proteas had to dig deep chasing just 189 due to the stellar opening spell by Gayakwad. The management did try to experiment with debutant C Prathyusha and Hemalatha coming in the dead rubber. They are inexperienced but it was a gamble well worth taking as India will look for some solution to when the main weapons backfire.

Up next is the T20I series which will be crucial for India to gain some mental edge after the debacle in the longer format. India were runners-up at the last T20 World Cup, just like in ODIs, and will look to channel some of that spirit as they look to course correct.

Stats courtesy: Statsguru via Cricinfo