In 2017, with all the focus was on the ODI World Cup, India and South Africa played no T20I cricket in the entire year. Consequently, the two teams would have been eager to shake off the rust, on Tuesday at Potchchefstroom. But the way the game unfolded, it looked like they had spent 2017 oiling their T20 gears.
Batting first, South Africa made their first score of over 160 in four years, getting to 164 for the loss of just four wickets. They would have been forgiven for thinking it was game-set-and-match there; India’s highest score before this was 168, but that came against Bangladesh.
South Africa, on the other hand, boasted the world’s highest ranked bowler, Marizanne Kapp, and besides three other bowlers in the top-10. Also, India’s highest score batting second was 141 — 24 runs less than the target — and 24 runs represent a canyon in T20I cricket. And then there was the fact that India were fielding four debutants, including one who batted in the top-five.
South Africa showed just why they are more of a force in the T20I format than the ODIs, which they lost 2-1. No one embodied it better that Chole Tryon, who struck a belligerent 32 off seven balls, wrenching the momentum of the game completely at the end. With their power hitting on display and a five match series lined up, it seemed that the Indians would be in for quite the safari.
Except India took them for a ride instead. If Tryon’s knock gave the Proteas a sprint at the end, Smriti Mandhana gave India a running start, taking 20 off Kapp’s first over. “We know they have a good batting unit," said captain Harmanpreet Kaur after the match. “We were expecting 150 on this wicket. Whatever the score, we decided we will go with a positive mindset.”
Mandhana didn’t stop there. By the fourth over, she had taken the score to 45, contributing 26 off just 11 balls. It was a combination of classical cricket shots and some audacious slaps across the line, leaving welts in the certainty South Africa would have felt at the halfway mark. When Moseline Daniels, the best bowler on display from both sides, finally removed Mandhana, the Proteas fought their way back in. Harmanpreet was sent back by a direct hit first ball, and India were in a familiar quandary after a good start.
Enter Jemimah Rodrigues, in her first game for India. The youngster nervelessly took 14 runs off her first six balls, getting 21 runs the over after the two wickets fell, benefitting from a dropped catch at cover when she was on 4. It ensured that India lost no momentum, and gave them a massive powerplay score of 66. By the 10th over, Rodrigues had outscored Mithali Raj, who opened the batting.
After that point, the Indian batting seemed like a series of controlled explosions, with Raj providing the control and everybody else, the explosions. After Rodrigues departed for 37 off 27, Veda Krishnamurthy played an even more aggressive hand, an unbeaten 37 off 20 balls, eventually hitting the winning runs with an over to spare. Raj anchored the chase with a precisely paced 54 off 48 balls, featuring in two fifty-partnerships besides the 47-run opening stand.
It was a strong statement from the Indian side in a year that will build up to the Women’s WT20 to be held in the West Indies in November. “Any total we chase there is pressure," said Raj after the game. “But if we are preparing for the World Cup, we have to be prepared for big totals because that’s how women’s cricket will go forward. We also as players will upgrade our performance in the T20 format.”
Bowling, not the batting, has traditionally been India’s strength. But in a Jhulan Goswami-less bowling attack, only Anuja Patil went at less than six runs an over. The impunity with which Tryon took 23 runs off the last over bowled by Shikha Pandey, ruining her figures, will be a worry for India. As will the ease with which the Proteas played Poonam Yadav (0 for 31 in three overs), India’s lead spinner in T20Is. “It’s a great victory but lots of areas to improve, especially the bowling. We need to come up with a good plan. Full credit to top order," Harmanpreet said after the game.
But despite the deflating end in the first innings, for the batting department to show both belief and execution and post India’s highest ever total was exemplary. Granted, the conditions were good for batting, and they enjoyed some good fortune, with Raj too being given a life on 32, but the benchmark for the rest of the year has been set. It was a fine way for Harmanpreet’s first win as captain outside the subcontinent.
With both teams playing such eye-catching cricket, it is hard to believe that viewers may not have been able to watch this game as per the original broadcast plan. Only the last three T20Is were among the broadcast matches, not the ODI series and first two T20 games, a fact that “saddened” Harmanpreet.
“After the World Cup, we were expecting most of the time we are on TV wherever we are playing cricket," she told the BBC radio show Stumped. It was only after the Indian media raised a hue and cry, conveying the desire of viewers to watch their team, that a livestream was organised by Cricket South Africa and the host broadcaster Super Sport. Much like the cricket played, this too should serve as another bare-minimum benchmark for all future tours.