After opting to bat first, Indian skipper Mithali Raj said she was aiming for a total of more than 250 runs. Sports rarely goes to script though. The Indian batting innings was like driving inside an Indian residential society: Smooth road, speed breaker, repeat. One is never comfortable.
India lost wickets in clumps between partnerships. After the openers fell early, Raj and Deepti Sharma put on 118, both scoring fifties. Then both were dismissed, along with Jhulan Goswami, before Veda Krishnamurthy and Harmanpreet Kaur put up 50 for the sixth wicket. The effort took them to 232 for 8, which eventually proved enough to beat Sri Lanka by 16 runs.
But the match was decided pretty early in the second innings, thanks to a strangling spell from Poonam Yadav, and some advice from Ekta Bisht.
Bisht has played 44 ODIs, and has plenty of experience in England. She made her debut here, picked up her first Player of the Match (in a T20) here, and has played more than 20 percent of her ODIs in England as part of three touring parties. Against Pakistan in the previous game, she had taken five wickets. So when she talks about spin bowling in England, you listen.
"When I made my debut in England, it was difficult to adjust here," she said on the eve of the game, "Then I got some experience in international cricket, and that has helped me. Now I’m experienced enough to know what lines I’m going to bowl if I’m bowling against the wind. I also know how to bowl with the new ball and old ball."
"They (the other spinners) also asked me what the conditions are like there, so I told them that there are slightly bouncy tracks, and we have to concentrate on our variations," she said, "We work on our variation; that’s the main thing."
On Wednesday, on a Derby pitch that had some turn in it, that experience and advice came in handy. Bisht herself went for 48 runs in her 10 overs with just one wicket to her name, but it was the other spinners who benefitted. After Goswami broke the opening partnership, Chamari Atapattu — who scored an unbeaten 178 against Australia last week — joined Nipuni Hansika at the crease. The two left-handers looked quite comfortable against the pace of Goswami and Mansi Joshi. After Hansika took two fours off Joshi, spin was introduced.
Sharma was the natural choice as the first spinner, as she has dismissed Atapattu thrice in the last three matches between these teams. She calmed the rising run-rate, sending down two maidens, one to each batter. But the tempo changed when Bisht came in, as her first ball was sent over mid on by Atapattu. Raj introduced Harmanpreet Kaur and Poonam Yadav as well, but Atapattu — who was looking in ominous form — greeted them with boundaries.
At this point, Bisht’s advice to her fellow spinners came into play.
On the fourth ball of the 18th over, Yadav’s second, Atapattu lined the bowler up for a slog sweep. She had picked up a boundary off the same shot in Yadav’s previous over. But she didn’t account for a variation. Bowling from around the wicket, Poonam landed the ball just outside off. But instead of turning into the arc of Atapattu’s bat, it went straight on, slipped under, and clipped the off stump; Atapattu had not picked Yadav’s googly.
The wicket changed the momentum of the match. MS Dhoni may believe that the ball going away poses the biggest threat to the batter; Yadav doesn’t seem to be limited by that strategy. In her fifth over, she picked up Hansika with a leg-spinner. She bowled her 10 overs unchanged for just 23 runs, extracting more turn from the pitch than any other bowler, while showcasing her variations.
At the back-end of the game, Sri Lanka scripted a bit of a fightback. They took 40 runs off the batting power play, and mounted a belated sortie on the Indian total. Sharma was entrusted to bowl her last three overs at the death. While she gave away 25, it was good enough on the day, with Sri Lanka falling short, but not by much.
After the game, she spoke about the advice Bisht gave her, and the variations she used in the game. "I was using the crease, bowling from behind, flighting the ball, and bowing faster, I tried it all," she said. Her tight spell in partnership with Yadav gave India a foothold in the game.
Overall, it was a patchy performance by India. Any hope of a crushing win that will boost their run-rate disappeared after Sri Lanka took 77 off the last 10 overs, coming within one good over of India’s total. India may not be sure quite how to feel after this win. They picked up the points, but there were too many speed breakers along the way for them to be comfortable.
The author is a former India cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She hosts the series ‘Cricket How To’ on YouTube, and tweets @SnehalPradhan