Riding a surge of interest in women’s cricket and a strong away result, India went into their televised matches with the eyes of a nation on them. But once they were in the spotlight, they blinked, they froze, and they wasted an opportunity to win and woo an audience.
This article is a series review of India’s tour to South Africa, but the lines above don’t talk about this tour. They describe India’s WT20 campaign of 2016.
India came into that competition having won a series in Australia for the first time, so hopes were as high as the confidence in the team. But when the cameras were turned on, India put on a timid show against Pakistan and then lost to the Windies. In a home WT20, they failed to make it past the gate of what should have been their party.
The year 2018 started similarly, but the end result is very different. India came into the pointy (and televised) end of the tour with a historic ODI series win and a 2-0 lead in the T20Is. But they were beaten in the third T20I and bloodied in the fourth, which was rained off. In the two games that were broadcast on TV, India were outplayed, the domination seen earlier in the tour suddenly absconding.
An all too familiar pattern was appearing. The pressure was high in the final game, as was the viewership. Although they couldn’t lose the series, squandering a 2-0 lead would have been as good as a loss.
So it was refreshing to see how different India’s response was, under pressure and in the public eye. They beat South Africa by 54 runs to seal the series 3-1 and put the cherry on a historic tour, their best ever overseas performance.
Mithali Raj’s three half centuries at the top of the order were central to India’s batting success, and her ability to adapt her game to the T20 format continues to set the bar for the next generation. The composure of young Jemimah Rodrigues and the brisk starts from Smriti Mandhana won new fans, and the power hitting of Harmanpreet Kaur and Veda Krishnamurthy disregarded the boundary lines, preferring to land closer to the stands.
India’s bowlers had a mixed tour, with most of them having to set new plans as per the new playing conditions. Despite the high scoring games, Poonam Yadav and 18 year-old Pooja Vastrakar finished with respectable economy rates of close to six RPO.
New Rules, New Results
Like learning a new board game, both teams took time reading the fine print of the new playing conditions. These allowed only four fielders outside the 25-yard circle in non-powerplay overs, as opposed to five in the men’s game. In addition — in a clear attempt to increase scoring rates — boundary ropes seemed to be pulled in as far as the rules allowed, i.e. 55 yards. The result: 42 sixes in the five-match T20I series, almost as many as the entire WT20 2016, which lasted 23 games. India set records for their highest totals batting first as well as second, the latter coming in their biggest successful chase.
The new playing conditions have allowed the average run-rate to leapfrog ahead, from 5.84 till September 2017 to 7.02 in the last few months. While this makes good reading, the balance between bat and ball was skewed too far, as I argued here.
New power centre
Indian men’s cricket is fuelled by two factors: star power and the television revenue that follows. Both are the symbiotic pillars on which India’s financial dominance in world cricket is built. This series gave the first hints that the women’s team can also move along a similar trajectory.
When the ODI series in which Mandhana scored a century and Jhulan Goswami took her 200th wicket was not televised, the media outcry showed just how much the popularity of the players had grown. The interest forced the South African broadcaster to hastily put together a live stream of the remaining non-televised games. As of the time of writing, those live streams have more than 11 lakh views on YouTube, and attracted reasonable live traffic, despite competing with the men’s games on a few days. India’s series win will have swelled their fan base even more, and the next time they play, the broadcast of their games will be looked at as a potential revenue stream, not just a CSR effort.
With Goswami missing the latter half of the tour due to injury, questions of her long-term replacement naturally came up. The selection of 34 year-old Rumeli Dhar made for a wonderful comeback story, but also highlighted the lack of young pace bowlers in the Indian system. But on closer examination, it is not surprising that the stocks are so thin; only last season did the BCCI introduce an Under-16 competition, that too at zonal level.
If talents like Rodrigues can be unearthed without a supply-line in place, imagine the diamonds India could turn up if there were concerted efforts to take cricket to school going girls, especially outside the metros. On the bright side, Vastrakar enjoyed a promising debut, and could push Shikha Pandey for a spot once Goswami returns.
So all’s well?
But could it be better? Despite Raj’s stunning consistency at the top of the order, I believe the team might benefit more if she bats at No 3. Her series strike rate of 117 was impressive, but is more suited to overs seven to 14, where an innings typically consolidates for the dash at the death. The strike rates of other openers, both foreign (Beth Mooney of Australia, Danielle Wyatt of England, both 155 in the recent Women’s Ashes) and domestic (Mandhana, 142 in this series) indicate how fruitful the first six overs can be.
India will play both Australia and England in a tri-series next month, and this might be the right time to try Rodrigues at the top of the order, or even Pandey in a pinch-hitting role. The latter move would shore up the middle order as well.
With stats inputs courtesy @_hypocaust