Smriti Mandhana’s return to the side for Richa Ghosh boosted India, but they still needed a way to counter New Zealand’s heavy artillery. So they left out Arundhati Reddy, the second seamer, to get in Radha Yadav. Radha became the fourth spinner in a side that already boasted of Poonam Yadav, Deepti Sharma, and Rajeshwari Gayakwad, and as backup, Harmanpreet Kaur.
They did not disappoint. All five Indian bowlers (including Shikha Pandey, the lone seamer) did their bit to defend 134 successfully; till Poonam’s last over (19th of the New Zealand innings), none of them had an economy rate in excess of six.
There is little doubt that India picked their five best bowlers from the squad. It was an enormous risk, especially on Australian soil, but the Docklands is a slower (and lower) surface than the WACA Ground, so it was probably worth taking. Moreover, India had nearly stopped using Reddy (and Pooja Vastrakar, the original choice for the second seamer) upfront, in the Powerplay overs. It should ideally not have mattered.
The spinners came into play, tossing the ball up and taking the pace off, once Rachel Priest got out. India had played four spinners against New Zealand in the 2018 World T20 as well, on a slow surface. Chasing 195, New Zealand had failed to stay in the hunt that day. None of the spinners had conceded over 8.25, and they shared eight wickets between them.
This was almost déjà vu, albeit with lower totals. If anything, the Indian bowling has become more potent, what with Poonam having gone from strength to strength and Pandey back in the side. The quality of fielding had improved as well. Additionally, runs have been difficult to come by in the tournament: 135 has not been breached yet against any side barring Bangladesh and Thailand.
With Pandey unlikely to return anytime soon after her first spell, New Zealand now found themselves up against four spinners on a slow surface. They had no option but to take risks to remain in the hunt. To be fair, they had the firepower, for at the crease were Suzie Bates and Sophie Devine, first and second in ICC rankings.
Now the fun began. Bates went down on one knee, probably trying to guide the ball somewhere towards long leg. The idea was right, but Sharma had taken so much pace off the ball that Bates ended up sweeping the ball on to the stumps. A tidy over from Poonam added to the pressure. Devine then tried to loft Poonam, connected very slightly early, and managed to sky a mishit.
It was not that New Zealand did not get runs. Katey Martin, who had played spin well in that 2018 match, tried to accelerate in the company of Maddy Green. Martin lofted Radha for six, but apart from that she managed four fours in 37 balls: all four came off short-pitched deliveries.
In other words, New Zealand managed runs in the middle overs only when the Indians erred in length. They failed to get the ball away otherwise. As was expected, both perished in pursuit of runs: one was beaten by turn, the other by lack of pace, and that was that.
Will the four-spinner ploy work in India’s next two, perhaps three matches? Their path is likely to cross England’s as some point. And if India make it to the final, both Australia and New Zealand will be better prepared. However, given how things unfolded here, India are likely to pursue with four spinners.
The flip side
New Zealand needed 34 in two overs, a steep target in any circumstances. To add to that, the overs were to be bowled by India’s best bowlers in the tournament – Pandey and Poonam.
At that point Poonam’s tournament figures read 11-0-51-8. Her low release point, lack of pace, variations, and considerable turn in both directions was a combination New Zealand were not used to. Unless she bowled a rank long-hop, conventional strokeplay was unlikely to work against her.
The only way was to use Poonam’s sub-60 kph pace against her. One could either step out and meet the ball in the full or could stay as deep as possible in the crease and wait for the ball to turn before playing the shot. England Women had executed the latter successfully in the 2018 semi-final.
Amelia Kerr did both. She moved back enough to convert the first and third balls to long-hops and picked up two fours. She attempted it again off the fourth, but this time Poonam had bowled too full, and there was no run.
So Kerr switched to Plan B. She anticipated the length, stepped out, converted it into a full toss and got four. She followed this with another four, with an inside-out stroke. Thankfully, Pandey sealed the match with an assortment of yorkers and low full-tosses.
However, that did not change the fact that Kerr had decoded the Poonam enigma – though, to be fair, not many have the talent to execute both Plans A and B the way Kerr did.
The Indian spinners have aced the art of bowling in the Powerplay. They have been competent at the death, too. However, doing both may be an uphill task. While Sharma and Radha can bowl to a flatter trajectory and slide in the odd quicker ball, Gayakwad, and especially Poonam, are slower through the air.
Kerr demonstrated that it is possible to dominate Poonam if one has a plan and the footwork to pull it off. There is little doubt that others will follow suit, especially in the death overs.
This will probably force the Indian management to use up Poonam and Gayakwad earlier in the innings and bowl one of Sharma and Radha at the death. But even then, the lack of pace at the end might be an issue.
However, India still have the Sri Lanka match to figure out the exact combination for the knockouts. And they will play the semi-final at the Sydney Cricket Ground, usually conducive to spin, especially after being used throughout the long Australian summer.
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