The Indian women's cricket team went into the ICC Women's World Cup Qualifiers with a distinct disadvantage. They had lost three players from the original squad to injury, two of those amongst their finest. Smriti Mandhana and Jhulan Goswami were both ruled out of the tournament, leaving India's batting and bowling spearheads blunted. Mandhana had averaged 40 in ODIs in 2016, and was only behind captain Mithali Raj in terms of the number of runs scored. Goswami had been leading the attack since the time before some of her younger teammates even started playing cricket.
But when tall trees are cut, the shrubs get more sunlight. Their absence allowed some of the lesser known players to step up and make a mark, and the accomplishments of these players capped a successful tournament for India.
India remained undefeated throughout the tournament, clinching the final against South Africa with Harmanpreet Kaur hitting a six in the last over to give India a victory that was as sweet as it was dramatic.
Once Mandhana regains full fitness, she will face stiff competition for the slot that she had made her own over the past year. In her absence, her partner and fellow southpaw Deepti Sharma played the role of the leader, topping the run charts (only ODIs taken into consideration) with 253 runs, including with three half centuries, from six games. The 19-year-old impressed with a crucial knock in a record chase against South Africa in the final, scoring 71 off 89 balls.
At the other end, MD Thirushkamini and Mona Meshram took whatever chances they got. Meshram, who only came into the squad as a replacement for Mandhana, had not crossed 22 in her first eight ODIs. She scored three half centuries in the last four games of the tournament though, including two against South Africa, the strongest team in the competition.
"Deepti has been a revelation," said Purnima Rau, coach of the Indian team. "The kind of shots she has played has been great to see. Even Mona, with three fifties has done well. To see her bring up a fifty by hitting a six was an indication of the positive intent these batters are showing."
Thirushkamini, meanwhile, scored a century against Ireland, but after that, played only in the final as she was laid low by illness. It was her second century, making her just the third Indian to score more than one ODI century. All three though, were guilty of scoring slowly on occasions, and forcing the middle order to play catch up. For the World Cup in England, against better teams that give less freebies, the skills required to rotate strike will be as essential baggage as jumpers.
In the absence of Goswami, Shikha Pandey stepped up to the mantle of leader of the pace attack with aplomb. She regularly broke the opening partnerships, and got the ball to swing initially, despite bowling in largely unfriendly conditions. Even in her second spell, her yorkers and slower balls came in handy while bowling in the power play. She finished the tournament as the second highest wicket taker, with 11 scalps in six games, at an economy of just over three.
In the spin department, Ekta Bisht impressed in the five games she played, often opening the bowling with India choosing to go in with just one pace bowler in some games. She claimed a near-incredulous figure of five wickets for eight runs against arch rivals Pakistan in the Super Six stage, and also became only the ninth Indian to get to 50 ODI wickets in the process. She topped the highest wicket and lowest economy charts for the tournament (minimum 10 overs), and reaffirmed her worth to the side as its most experienced spinner.
New kids on the block
Devika Vaidya, all of 19-years-old and playing just her second ODI, made the most of the first opportunity she got to bat up the order. In India's first game against Sri Lanka, she walked in at number three ahead of Mithali, and notched up her first ODI fifty, scoring 89 in India's total of 259. Although she did not get much opportunities for her leg spin, her ability to slot higher up the order if need be will prove valuable to the team.
Manasi Joshi, who opened the bowling alongside Pandey when India used two pace bowlers, showed the potential to be a regular third seamer for India. Her tall, strong frame and classical out-swingers offer variety. Goswami is primarily a seam bowler, and Pandey bowls in-swingers. She could be handy in England, where conditions will certainly demand more than the one pace bowler India employed in the final.
"Developing the third seamer is definitely in the plans," Rau said. In a place like England, where India may not be able to employ a spin-heavy attack, she agreed that it was an essential component to have in place.
With the win against South Africa in the final, India set a number of records. In the chase of 245, they achieved their highest-ever chase in ODIs, eclipsing the previous highest of 234 set last year by 11 runs. Even more creditable is the circumstance and manner in which it was achieved.
Firstly, India had no Mithali, who had been the top scorer for the country in the ICC Women's Championship. Mithali picked up a hamstring injury in the previous game against Pakistan, and instead, Harmanpreet, who leads the T20 team, was entrusted with the responsibility. Harmanpreet had struggled in this tournament, her first outing since the Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) campaign that was as successful as it was historic. But she came good when it mattered the most, scoring a run-a-ball 41 in the final. With eight required off the last two balls, Harmanpreet smashed a six and then stole a double to hand India s stunning last-ball win.
"Harman lambi race ki ghodi hai (she is a big match player)", said Rau. "With her WBBL experience, she has definitely benefited and got more maturity now. Plus when she is wearing the India kit, it makes you give a little extra. That and the responsibility of being captain."
The win also gave India a record-equalling 13-match winning streak, that began the last time they broke the record for their highest chase against Australia in 2016. Only Australia, who have a streak of 17 ODI wins in a row stand ahead of this Indian team. It also gave India their first ever ICC event title, albeit in a qualifying tournament.
Is India ready for the World Cup?
Yes, according to Rau, though she highlighted fielding as an area that needed urgent improvement. "In particular, we need to work on our slip catching - that is going to be a vital area in a place like England. Once we are back we will speak to the board and request a fitness-oriented camp after our domestic season, hopefully followed by a series before the World Cup," she added.
When India did not earn direct qualification for the ICC Women's World Cup, I mentioned to a fellow journalist that this was a good thing in the bigger picture. The team might benefit from playing more games, I argued. In fact, they have done better and won the title, flexed some bench muscle, and gained that most fickle of commodities: confidence. The confidence that such a win will give this Indian team will remain in their systems long after the adrenaline fades. Maybe even till the end of a World Cup.