Game one of the 2018 ICC Women’s World Twenty20 between India and New Zealand, and Taniya Bhatia walked out to bat with Smriti Mandhana at the top of the order. Mithali Raj, India’s regular opener who had only a couple of weeks ago become the only Indian woman to score two T20 centuries, was slated to come in only at No 7. This was a statement of intent from a team that was traditionally know to be very conservative, especially in world events. Harmanpreet Kaur, in her first major tournament as skipper, seemed to have set a precedent: India would make bold calls, all for the benefit of the team.
However, early into the innings, it seemed the move had backfired as India were struggling at 40 for three in 5.4 overs. One more wicket and their decision to bat first would have looked terribly silly — Lea Tahuhu had shaken up the batters with her pace, and Leigh Kasperek had tied down the youngsters with her accuracy and guile. Pessimistic Indian fans may have thought, ‘Here we go again’… But this Indian team was different.
“Although we didn’t have the best results coming into the tournament, I knew India always had the ability to reach the semi-finals of this World T20,” Archana Das, former India off-spinner, told Firstpost. “There was something different about their approach. They looked confident, and there was a real sense of belief.”
That belief was the standout of India’s campaign in the Caribbean. When Kaur and Jemimah Rodrigues came together to bludgeon the New Zealand attack to all parts of the ground, that belief was evident. When Deepti Sharma threw herself forward to take two spectacular catches in the deep in the same match, that belief shone through. When Raj calmly struck half centuries to guide India home against Pakistan and then, against Ireland, that belief was part of every stroke. And finally, when Mandhana caressed a career-best 83 against the mighty Australians, that belief was clearly what set the tone for the day.
India has often been thought of as the kind of team that folds quickly — one wicket leads to two, and sometimes even three — but against New Zealand, Kaur made sure that there were no more such hiccups. She gave herself some time to settle down before tearing the New Zealand attack apart. It was an approach that Ramesh Powar, interim head coach of the Indian team, would have been proud of.
In fact, since he took over from Tushar Arothe, Powar has helped change the team’s mindset and encouraged them to play a more attacking style of cricket. “Winning and losing is part of the game, but from the time Ramesh (Powar) sir has joined us (as head coach), our mindset has changed,” said Kaur in the post-match presentation after India beat New Zealand by 34 runs in Guyana.
“Before coming into the World T20, Ramesh sir had told us that you have to dominate each and every match, so that is the only mindset which we had,” said Mandhana later, echoing her captain’s words.
As is evident from their numbers, the Indian batting line-up has certainly benefitted from Powar’s entry into the fray: in 10 matches, they have scored 1,257 runs at a strike rate of 122.39 and hit 35 sixes. Compare this with their numbers between January 2016 to September 2018— 32 matches, 3,279 runs at a strike rate of 106.05, and 63 sixes— and the improvement is clear. In the five matches of the World T20 itself, India hit 19 sixes, of which Kaur was responsible for 13— more than double of Ashleigh Gardner who was second on the list with six.
Kaur set the tournament alight with a brilliant century and raised the bar for India with the bat. As surprising as their attacking approach was, it came like a breath a fresh air, injecting a spark into the team’s approach. India’s positive intent with the bat mirrored that of their captain— go hard or go home— with all the batters wanting to take down the opposition bowlers, constantly searching for the boundary option. Kaur and Rodrigues, India’s most successful partnership through the tournament, scored 170 runs at a rate of 9.53 runs per over. There was rarely any wild swinging involved in their methods, it was all about calmly taking calculated risks and making sure the opposition is always on the back foot.
The tactic came off for India in the group stage of the tournament, but on a slow-ish, sticky surface in Antigua they came undone. Their inability to adapt, after having made one of the most tricky selection calls of the tournament, showed a stubbornness in the way they approached the tournament.
This was an issue with their bowling plans as well — the negative lines that India resorted to, barely ever changing things up, gave the opposition enough time to figure out how to tackle the bowlers. Ellyse Perry led the way, scoring a masterful unbeaten 39, as Australia crumbled in pursuit of a large score. Then, Amy Jones and Natalie Sciver took a leaf out of her book and milked the spinners off the back foot, almost completely nullifying their threat.
India went into the tournament looking to dominate, and aside from one (albeit crucial) match, Kaur’s team did just that. They blew away the opposition on four occasions — the stronger the opponent, the harder the blow.
The Indian team that travelled to the Caribbean is a young side. An average age of 24, means there is so much to work with and much scope for improvement. That is the most exciting part of their journey.
Powar has tried to mould the team into one that he believes will dominate world cricket in the future — an exciting, energetic and attacking side. He has singled out certain players who he believes have the ability to excel at the international level and given them an extended run. Rodrigues, who was struggling to make the XI under the previous regime, has played every single T20I since Powar has taken over and has made the No 3 position her own. Arundhati Reddy, touted as the ‘next Jhulan Goswami’ was first preferred over Shikha Pandey during the tour of Sri Lanka, and then over Pooja Vastrakar and Mansi Joshi during the World Cup.
The fast bowler, who has blown hot and cold with the ball, is yet to find her feet at the international level, but her skill in the field and with the bat have meant she is always seen as an asset to the team. Bhatia has been brilliant with the gloves through her short career, and is now being given an opportunity to showcase her skills higher up in the batting order. Radha Yadav, the young left-arm spinner, has been preferred over Ekta Bisht in the playing XI. She has been trusted with the new ball and has delivered on a consistent basis.
Add Mandhana, Anuja Patil, Deepti, Poonam Yadav, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Vastrakar, Pandey, Joshi and Kaur to the mix and India have the makings of a potentially world-beating team.
India’s fantastic run through the World T20 also showcased the team’s improved fielding standards. Although there was a great deal of inconsistency in their performances, there were moments of real brilliance — Deepti on the boundary, Rodrigues in the circle, Veda Krishnamurthy in the outfield, and Bhatia behind the stumps.
“This team is more about dominance rather than just competing,” Powar had said ahead of the World Cup. “They are looking to dominate everything, every situation.”
Now that his contract has ended, it will be interesting to see whether the BCCI extend Powar’s tenure. So far, he has had a positive impact on the batting unit, and the bowler’s have developed a great deal of discipline.
There is much to be excited about this young group of Indian players — they have turned from a meek team to one that wants to crush opponents, from a team with stage fright to one with much more belief and confidence; and from a heavily bowling dependent team, to one that has a growing list of match winning batters as well. If anything, India need to learn to be able to adapt to conditions and opposition tactics a little better, and for that, a coach will need time.