It's November 2018. Ahead of the T20 World Cup semi-final between India and England, the English camp were huddled over for a discussion. The topic in question was not about finding ways to stop Harmanpreet Kaur, who had unleashed familiar savagery to demolish a strong New Zealand attack in India’s tournament opener. It was not about containing Smriti Mandhana, whose 83 had undone the Australian bowlers in the last league match. Something more intriguing, yet just as sinister needed to be addressed.
England needed to sort out Poonam Yadav, a leg-spinner, barely five feet tall. This was unlike any other bowler, especially in T20 cricket. To begin with, Poonam never hesitated to toss the ball up even when the batters were eager to cut loose. Her tiny frame meant that she had a low release point, and the ball had to rise past the eye-level before pitching.
The New Zealanders or the Australians were not used to this sort of trajectory. To make things worse for them, Yadav had sorted out yet another problem. There used to be a time when that googly used to be too slow (even by her standards!) and too full; that had been addressed. After the league stage, her figures read 16-0-97-8. England needed to come up with something special. They just about managed that.
Normality is restored
However, nothing seems to have changed fifteen months down the line. The Australians crumbled again, forcing others to rethink their strategies on how to handle probably the most innocuous destroyer cricket has ever seen.
An injury had kept Poonam out of competitive cricket for some time, during the course of which she was named BCCI’s Female Player for the season. There was no certainty regarding her regaining match fitness, but despite that, the Indian team management retained her in the squad for the T20 Tri-Nation Tournament ahead of the World Cup.
Eventually, she played in the warm-up match against West Indies. Her figures read 4-0-20-3, which left little doubt over her match fitness. Despite the impressive performance by the finger-spinners – Deepti Sharma, Radha Yadav, and Rajeshwari Gayakwad – there was no question of leaving Poonam out. Radha took the axe.
It is never easy to defend 133 against Australia at their den in a T20 World Cup match, more so when you come on to bowl with the score on 58/2 after nine overs. Alyssa Healy had shrugged her poor form away to take charge in characteristic fashion, while the dangerous Rachael Haynes was at the other end.
Most bowlers would have started off cautiously on their comeback. Not Poonam. The first two balls, tossed up, were driven away for singles. Haynes was probably taken aback by the third, a full toss, and got another single. Then Poonam bowled another full toss – and Healy cleared the mid-wicket fence.
But Poonam refused to bowl to a flatter trajectory. It was the length that had gone awry, she knew, there was nothing wrong with tossing up the ball. This time she got the length right, the face of Healy’s bat closed too soon, and the ball lobbed back to the bowler.
Poonam got the left-handed Haynes in her next over in what they have been referring to as a classical left-arm spinner’s dismissal since time immemorial. She tossed up the ball, and like many, many batters before her, Haynes came down the track. The googly inevitably pitched shorter than where Haynes had anticipated, turned past the bat, and Taniya Bhatia did the rest.
Out came Ellyse Perry, and as with Haynes, Poonam bowled a googly. Just like Haynes, Perry stepped out – and missed. The ball made its way between her bat and pad to hit timber.
Despite having conceded a six and a four, Poonam’s figures read 1.4-0-14-3. She was on a hat-trick, but more importantly, she had turned the match on its head.
The hat-trick did not happen but not for any fault of Poonam’s, who now bowled a third googly in a row. Jess Jonassen decided to play from the crease, reached out for it despite that, and edged. Unfortunately, the deflection turned out to be too much for Bhatia.
But none of them seemed to deter Poonam, who had been there, done that twice before, as she nonchalantly admitted at the post-match presentation. Sure enough, another googly followed soon. Jonassen attempted a sweep, edged, and was caught behind.
It would have been fitting if Poonam had finished with five wickets. She almost managed it with what was easily the worst ball of the match. The ball was so slow that it did not rise despite the short length. Instead, it hit the pads and then the stumps – but only after pitching twice, thereby violating Law 21.7. But then, you cannot have everything.
How to conquer Poonam?
Let us now return to England Women’s preparation ahead of the 2018 semi-final. Ali Maiden, their senior assistant coach, went down on his knees to replicate Poonam’s release point and flighted the ball at the batters. It had worked, for they played her from the depth of the crease, picking up easy runs through a curiously empty mid-wicket area.
But by now Poonam has had enough time to work a way around that. Once again has she forced the other teams to return to their drawing boards to come up with another plan. It will be interesting to see what they come up this time.
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