“We’d like to make history by winning in India”
That’s how England captain Heather Knight started her column on the BBC website, setting down a clear goal for her squad on what is a long tour of the subcontinent. England have played bilateral ODIs in India only five times since India have been playing international cricket, in 1977. That’s five times in 42 years. And only once in recent times, the visitors have come close to winning series.
“Something we have talked about a lot is making history”, said Knight before the first ODI. “Ever since Robbo (coach Mark Robinson) has come in, he’s talked a lot about breaking records and trying to be a part of history. When he first came in, he put a list of records on the board and said let’s try and break a lot of these. So it’s a burning ambition of a team and myself to be successful here.”
India are on a high after winning their own first ever bilateral ODI series in New Zealand, but have reasons to be wary. England’s most recent attempt at the history they seek was also their closest, when they came to a series win with a young squad last year. That, despite conditions in which the home team were runaway favourites. On turning pitches in Nagpur, India somehow scratched a win in the first game, lost the second heavily, but managed to come back in the decider.
This time, there are some signs that suggest that India are favourites. England are currently ranked seventh on the ICC Championship table, with 10 points from nine games, while India are fifth. But only two points separate the teams, a difference of one game. England also have more games in hand, having played only nine.
“I’m not worried about our position at all” said Knight. “We have a couple of good series coming up, here and then we head straight to Sri Lanka. We haven’t played as many games, but we have won some good series in the past in this championship so we’re not worried.”
England were also challenged by the Board President’s XI in their warm-up game, when they were reduced to 11 for four in a chase of 155. At one point, they had only two wickets in hand with 37 runs more required. Only a patient unbeaten 64 from Knight, and runs from top order bat Lauren Winfield, who batted at No 10, saw them home.
But there is only so much one can read into that result. England are almost at full strength on this tour. Veteran Jenny Gunn is not touring, but wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor and all-rounder Katherine Brunt are back. Both missed the Women’s T20 World Cup last year, when England beat India in the semi-final. Taylor is widely considered the best wicketkeeper batswoman in the world and is just short of 4000 ODI runs. And Brunt, on what is most likely her last tour on India, will combine with Anya Shrubsole to form a formidable opening pair.
In comparison, India start the series on the back foot thanks to injuries. Allrounder Dayalan Hemalatha is still to recover from the shoulder injury that she sustained in New Zealand, but the latest loss is more severe: vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur will miss the ODIs due to an ankle injury, one that is serious enough for her to require treatment in the NCA. Her replacement, Harleen Deol, impressed in the warm-up games and is likely to make her debut, but she has big shoes to fill. Harmanpreet’s injury further weakens India’s middle order, and England will see this as a prime opportunity to make the history they so desperately want.
There was much said about the dew in the lead up to the game, but Mithali Raj still banked on spin. “Spin will be the major factor for all matches we play at home, that’s why we produce the best spinners,” she said. “The fast bowlers also bowled well in New Zealand. If there is some moisture, the fast bowlers will come into play. But in the second innings, there will be slow turn.” If the warm-up game was any indication, there will be a hint of movement for the first 10 overs on both sides, but the morning dew could mean that both teams will watch the coin very carefully as it is tossed as early as 8:30 AM.
Smriti Mandhana, in the form of her life, will remain the key batswoman for India, but the biggest challenge for her may not just be the skills of the England bowlers, but their knowledge of her game. She topped the run-charts in the Kia Super League, where she played for Western Storm. Knight led the Storm, while Shrubsole was her teammate there, and incidentally the bowler who dismissed her in the warm-up game. Knight and Mandhana were also teammates in the Women’s Big Bash, both playing for Hobart Hurricanes. So England’s plans against Mandhana, and Mandhana’s inputs about their players will be a fascinating example of how T20 Leagues are affecting women’s cricket.
But India’s recent overreliance on Mandhana, coupled with Harmanpreet’s absence, may mean that England start favourites. Just as England chase history, India will look to avoid it, and not become the first Indian team to lose a series at home to England.