The last time India were in Sri Lanka early last year, Purnima Rau was the head coach and the team was fighting for one of the four qualifying spots at the ICC World Cup Qualifier. India produced a wonderful streak of cricket with Harmanpreet Kaur, the stand-in captain against South Africa in the final, starring in a successful chase of 245 to help the team clinch the title off the last ball with just a wicket in hand.
There was genuine excitement around that game in particular, with Kaur, who made a run-a-ball unbeaten 41 with an injured wrist, comparing the knock with Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s finishing skills. The match, live streamed on ICC’s website, had good following, but no one really expected any kind of detailed reporting. In fact, Mithali Raj, the captain, was surprised that there were two Indian journalists present in the country to cover the tournament.
So much has changed since then. The journey to the 2017 World Cup final in England opened up a new playing field for the girls, as they were showered with new level of hype. Obviously, the pressure of expectations got bigger and very few were able to realistically cope with the demands. There was, however, genuine hope that women’s cricket in India had finally reached a pinnacle from where it could take off.
Things, though, have not changed dramatically at the ground level. There were only a few reporters for the T20 Challenger Trophy in Alur on the outskirts of Bangalore that marked the start of the 2018-19 domestic season. Reporting has improved, but it has not opened up the dam. There is, in fact, little build up for the bilateral series against Sri Lanka, scheduled from 11 to 25 September.
The ODI Championship gets underway in Galle on Tuesday. Both India and Sri Lanka are poorly positioned on the table. After beating South Africa 2-1, India went down to Australia at home and are now sixth on the standings with six points from four games. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, currently hold the wooden spoon, having lost all their six matches so far. On paper, India are favourites to win the three ODIs and boost up their stature on the table, but Raj was aware of the closing gaps between teams.
“We have played Sri Lanka in the World Cup (last year), in the Asia Cup (earlier this year) and I should admit that it’s a team that has grown from year to year,” Raj said at the pre-series press conference. “Now the gap between the top teams and the bottom teams is narrowing because of the ICC Women’s Championship.”
Chamari Athapaththu, their skipper who missed the Asia Cup because of a bout of dengue, is Sri Lanka’s pillar. She has become the face of the country’s cricket ever since that blistering 178 against Australia in Bristol last year. It was followed by stints in the Women’s Big Bash League and Kia Super League, giving the world a glimpse of what Sri Lankan talents can offer. She admitted that Sri Lanka need to get better in all departments to be a real threat.
“We need to improve our batting skills because we tend to struggle against spin,” Athapaththu said. “We cannot make changes overnight, but over time with new coach (Harsha de Silva) we can achieve it.”
The big picture will also be on the mind of Ramesh Powar, India’s new coach after Tushar Arothe resigned. While it is important to secure the potential six ODI Championship points, immediate focus is on the World T20 in the Caribbean in November this year. That makes the five T20Is a good grooming ground for the Indian team to get their game in order. It is a format India have not been always comfortable in. Remember how Sri Lanka beat them in the 2014 World T20, and not to forget about their twin losses against Bangladesh including the final in Asia Cup this year.
India’s issue in that tournament was that they played defensive cricket, and some of the selection calls were questionable. Expected to lift the trophy, the team went into a shell and players were barred from talking to the media. It led to an ugly phase eventually leading to Arothe ending his two-year contract prematurely.
Powar comes with steady T20 pedigree and the experience of 17 years of first-class cricket, but it is more about man-management than skill tuning at this level. The tour of Sri Lanka also offers Smriti Mandhana, the player of the series at KSL with a tally of 421 runs, to inject her newfound confidence into the Indian dressing room.
Eyes will also be on Shikha Pandey, who now is the team’s lead pacer in the shortest format after Jhulan Goswami retired from T20Is. A lot of puzzles to be solved, and the idealistic setting of the island nation is not a bad place to find those answers.