“If you play good cricket, a lot of things get hidden,” a former Indian cricket captain is said to have said. Good cricket is what the Indian women’s team will be searching for; they arrived on southern shores with a few blemishes to hide. After a spat between the former coach and ODI captain was quietly leaked and loudly reported, the Indian team enters their first assignment since then with some bruises to their image and a new coach on the roster. Which is why Mithali Raj, who is three games away from a record double century of ODIs, said, “It’s very important to get the focus back on the sport, and this is the opportunity.”
An opportunity it is. Aside from the World Cups, India have toured New Zealand only three times since they started playing ODI cricket in the late 1970s. And the land of the long white cloud has some happy memories for Indian tourists; the current team can draw inspiration from the batch of 1995. Led by former coach Purnima Rau, that Indian team won the New Zealand Women’s Centenary tournament, a tri-series also featuring Australia.
In the final, they posted a score of 200 for the first time overseas, and went on to win their first final in tournament cricket. “We put the Indian flag on the global map”, Rau said of the win in the book The Fire Burns Blue, a history of women’s cricket in India. This Indian team have a similar opportunity; they have travelled well this World Cup Cycle, winning both formats in South Africa and Sri Lanka, and they look the more settled side than their hosts.
New Zealand have failed to make the semi-finals of the last two global events, with India handing them heavy defeats in both tournaments. Amy Satterthwaite, their captain, has copious international experience but has had a severe initiation into leadership. The team relies heavily on Suzie Bates and Sophie Devine for runs, and the younger crop of batters are yet to eke out their own credentials. Questions are being asked as to why a side who have historically over-performed — despite women’s cricket being the smaller slice of a marginal sport — are being left behind. Murmurs of discontent around pay disparity have been swirling, and there is much expected from an MOU negotiation that will happen at the end of the summer.
New Zealand Cricket, on their part, have given this tour the best chance to grab the limelight by the collar. The men’s and women’s tours are aligned, such that the women play all three of their ODIs the day after the men do, at the same venues, and all three T20Is will be double headers. It is a pattern that begs to be reproduced by the world. “It makes this tour really significant,” Satterthwaite said. “Having the men around, and also it’s about showing the world our game and getting women’s cricket out there more.”According to The Fire Burns Blue, the Centenary Tournament final in 1995 used the double header format as well. Indian reporters turned their attention to the women’s team after Mohammed Azharuddin’s side failed to reach the final. With the increased profile of women’s cricket today, this series will not lack for watchers.
For the new coach WV Raman, this tour will be the first sign of whether the glove fits the hand. One of the first indications of the direction his regime will take will be the choice of openers in both ODIs and T20Is. Will he pair Smriti Mandhana with the busy Jemimah Rodrigues in the 50-over format, or go with the more conservative Punam Raut? Or will it be Deepti Sharma, who opened the batting in the warm-up game against Central Districts? Of the three, Rodrigues walks into the XI, and using her at the top allows India to play both Deepti and Dayalan Hemalatha, giving the captain six bowling options.
When the T20Is come around, perhaps that is where we will see more proactive planning, with the next T20 World Cup in Australia just over a year away. Will Mithali continue to open the batting, given that her participation in that tournament is not assured (she said in the West Indies that 2018 would be her last T20 World Cup)? Or will Raman and T20I captain Harmanpreet Kaur opt for the long view, given that the conditions are the closest to Australia the Indian team will get? Then again, Raman is unlikely to forget that rocking the boat cost the last coach his job.
The fractures and their fragile plasters will be ignored if India can be aggressive and win valuable ICC Women’s Championship points. And success on this tour becomes even more vital, given that New Zealand will host the next World Cup in 2021. New Zealand are a talented and dangerous side, but India have more match winners and would start marginal favourites, a tremendous opportunity on an away tour. A united team management is needed to actualise this. If India can stop cutting off their own nose to spite their face, they would smell the blood.