Only twice in the last 14 years has the Indian team played a game where both Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami were not available due to injury. The first occasion was last year, in the final of the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa. In that game, Shikha Pandey took wickets, Deepti Sharma scored runs, and Harmanpreet Kaur finished off a breathless match in style, with a last over six giving India the title. The fortunes of Indian cricket looked bright.
The second occasion was Monday at Vadodara, and those fortunes turned abjectly darker after the first One-Day International (ODI) against Australia. It’s funny how one’s view of the future can change after just one game, but such was the manner of India’s loss — Australia overcame 200 in 32.1 overs with eight wickets in hand — that gloom and doom is all that comes to mind.
House of cards collapses
Australia have used the strategy taking pace off the ball, and sliding it away from Smriti Mandhana for three games in a row now. In the World Cup, she was dismissed by the slow outswing of Megan Schutt and the off-spin of Ashleigh Gardener.
Those same bowlers combined to pack her off in the first ODI as well. Schutt seemed to be bowling with a 22-yard-long ruler, barely straying from that middle and off line, often beating the southpaw’s outer edge. She allowed the Indian only seven runs off 19 balls, including a spell of 18 balls for just three runs.
The pressure aided Gardener, as Mandhana attempted the unholiest of slogs, only to be caught at mid on. Not for the first time, the inability to play with soft hands and turn good balls into singles had hurt the talented 21-year-old. Punam Raut too faced 36 dots in her 50-ball 37, showing the issue wasn’t restricted to Mandhana.
Compare that to Aussie skipper Meg Lanning, who played 20 dots in her score of 33, completing her 3000th ODI run in the process. As it happened, Raut was the best of the top order; India’s top six were dismissed for 87, a combination of rash strokes (Mandhana, Veda) and good bowling (Harmanpreet, nicking a leg cutter from Schutt).
“All batsmen tried to go for big shots initially which, I think, wasn't required at the time”, said stand-in skipper Harmanpreet after the game. “We planned on rotating the strike, but that also didn't happen and in games like this rotation of strike is absolutely necessary where you can't find runs initially. But we'll learn from this.”
Vastakar saves India blues
Bustling outswingers, fearless fielding, and the willingness to swing for the fences was what 18-year old Pooja Vastrakar displayed in her first T20I series in South Africa, where she also made her ODI debut. Batting for only the third time in international cricket, Vastrakar showed there was more to her than that.
The slogs were there, but so was the shape; three lofted shots over the off side forced the sizeable crowd — over 3000 in my estimation — to sit up and rekindle their silenced larynxes. Vastrakar’s 51 off 56 balls — scored after coming in with India 113 for 7 in the 32nd — gave them much to cheer about, and they took special delight in the two lives she benefitted from. It was the only phase the Australians were put under pressure in the match, and glimpses of weakness appeared; misfields surfaced, run outs were missed, besides the dropped catches.
Vastrakar’s 76-run partnership with Sushma Verma was the difference between a humiliation and the eventual canter. On the bright side, India didn’t feel the absence of Goswami as keenly.
Bolton waltzes Australia home
The Reliance Stadium is no WACA, Nicole Bolton’s home ground, but the Indians seemed intent on giving her plenty of practice on the back foot anyways. The Indian medium-pacers bowled too short and wide to Bolton and Alyssa Healy, providing the wheels on which the openers motored to 60 in nine overs. The tactic was no mistake, revealed Harmanpreet.
“Well, when we were batting we were getting runs on the over-pitched balls, and not so much on the short balls. So we thought that maybe we could also try the same," she said. It betrayed a major tactical error; short balls are to Australians what half volleys are to Indians. And considering that both India’s pacers rely on swing, it wasn’t the most well-thought out strategy. Nor did the one-sided fields India employed help; a defensive tactic will rarely win a game that needs early wickets.
Bolton was the common denominator in three consecutive 50-run stands, getting to her fourth ODI 100 with Australia needing four runs to win.
“My last outing against India was the semifinal in World Cup”, she said after the game. “I was really disappointed with the contribution in that match, and was determined to go out there and play positively. I know India has got a great attack and to be out there to finish on not out was something that I will look back on.”
Besides the punches and pulls, she also swept the Indian spinners competently. “It’s something I have worked in Sri Lanka and it was quite successful. So it’s something I want to continue doing over here. If you are sweeping them then the bowlers have to adjust their length and that plays in to my strength.”
The tactic will demand homework from the Indians; the Australian spinners took eight wickets, while the Indian spinner took none. Australia’s lead now puts the shot-clock on Raj’s health. Without her and Goswami, this team’s average age is less than 24. And there is some growing up to do.