Being young is a liberating experience. You are fearless, you don’t carry any baggage and take risks without worrying about consequences – all necessary ingredients while playing Twenty20 cricket. But the thing about youngsters is that their life is dependent on the environment they grow up in. They look up to someone to give them that space where they can express themselves freely and being communicated that it is fine to fail as long they are being true to themselves. This aspect seemed to have gone missing from India women team after the 2017 World Cup runners-up finish as most of the players got burdened by newfound expectations. They froze regularly, often leaving the observers to wonder how the cobwebs in the head could be cleared.
It took a new coach in Ramesh Powar to make the players realise again that while wins and losses are a part of the process, playing a certain brand of cricket is what paves the way for the future. By preferring rookie Arundhati Reddy in all five Twenty20 Internationals in Sri Lanka over Shikha Pandey, who was supposed to be the leader of the bowling unit after Jhulan Goswami announced her retirement from the format, and left-arm spinner Radha Yadav over Ekta Bisht, Powar sent out a clear message. That India won the series 4-0 only vindicated his belief further. He had proved that the exuberance of youth could be as valuable as the steadiness of experience, and sometimes a better option. Jemimah Rodrigues delivered to be the best batswoman of the series because of that assurance.
The attitude seems to have rubbed on to Hemlata Kala’s selection committee, who made a statement of intent by naming a really young 15-member squad for the World T20, which gets underway in the Caribbean from 9 November. To understand how big this is historically one needs to know that Indian selectors have more often than not taken the safety first approach and tilted towards experience for big events; lack of depth in the domestic talent pool being cited as a common reason for this defensive mindset.
The average age of the WT20 squad is 24. There are eight players, including three teenagers, who are yet to turn 25. Only Mithali Raj and Ekta Bisht are in their 30s, and six of the players have never featured in an ICC tournament earlier.
The series against Sri Lanka has established that India are no more going to be defensive in T20Is, and always challenge the opposition by taking on the attack. Sure, at times the ploy might boomerang, but it is always better that way than playing timid cricket.
This mindset will fill fans of the team with hope when there existed none a few months back when Bangladesh defeated India in the T20 Asia Cup final in Malaysia. This WT20 squad is akin to Mahendra Singh Dhoni being given a young team for the inaugural men’s WT20 in South Africa in 2007, and it should be celebrated. No matter how India performs in the competition – five players have played less than ten matches – the selectors have opened the door for an energetic future. There cannot be any looking back from hereon. In that context, it is a big moment in the four decade journey of the team.
The selectors should have ideally taken this route at the start of the year when India toured South Africa and then played the tri-nation series against Australia and England in Mumbai, but seeing from their point of view they were also operating within the bubble of the post-2017 World Cup effect. It needed a few bad losses for the selectors to finally accept the reality and take some tough calls. Better late than never.
At an individual level, it is unfair for someone like Pandey, who has been replaced by Pooja Vastrakar who missed out on the trip to Sri Lanka because of an ankle injury. Pandey could easily make for a case study on how not to manage a promising all-rounder, but she too has not made an impact consistently for selectors to stand by her. The fault lies at both ends. She should have done more in whatever opportunities she got, and at the same time the team management should have had a clear plan for her when she first burst into the scene in 2014. One gets the impression that she is not always clear about her role in the team, and that is never a good thing. It is now up to her to script a comeback with strong performances in the domestic circuit. Bisht, on the other hand, is lucky to hold on to her position because she has proven time and again that she could be really lethal on her day. Also the conditions in Guyana where India will play all their four league matches suit her strength.
The exciting bit about this team is that Rodrigues and Taniya Bhatia, the only wicketkeeper in the squad, now offer depth to the batting unit. It gives cushion to Smriti Mandhana, Mithali, Harmanpreet Kaur, Anuja Patil and Veda Krishnamurthy. With at least six gun batswoman in the line-up always, India can now realistically aim to post totals beyond 180 everytime they bat.
There could be a possibility for India to continue with four spinners. It could work well agaisnt New Zealand; the result of that match could play a big role in deciding which team qualifies for the semifinals from Group B that also consists of Australia, Pakistan and Ireland.
As much as Reddy, Vastrakar and Mansi Joshi offer an edge as fast bowlers, a lot of India’s bowling plan will revolve around Poonam Yadav’s legspin. The country’s highest wicket-taker in the format, her strike-rate will be directly proportional to India’s chances of lasting the entire tournament.
The last time India travelled to Windies was in 2012 under Anjum Chopra’s captaincy. Only Mithali, Kaur and Bisht remain from that squad. The quartet will have a big role to play, but eventually India’s fortune will boil down to how smart and fearless they are in their approach. No matter what the result is, the selectors have done a good job.