Most Australians can be called many things: Natural athletes, fierce competitors, and thorough professionals. Most Australians also cannot be called one thing: good losers.
If an Australian side loses, you know they are going to come hard at you the next time you see them on the field. For the Australian women’s cricket team, one of their agendas in a month long tour of India, was payback.
“Yeah, look, there's a little bit of revenge there. I won't lie”, said Alyssa Healy, centurion of the third ODI. On Sunday, Australia served India a clinical 3-0 series loss, cold. “They pulled our pants down in the semi-final. So for us to come out and play the way we did, play aggressively, put it back on them, I think the group is really proud of that.”
Australia eclipsed India in every department, over all three games, leaving Indian fans wondering whether their team’s shock semi-final win in the 2017 World Cup was just that, a shock. Normal service resumed in Vadodara, despite the efforts of the nearly 20,000-odd people that turned up to support India over three games.
If the scorecard in the first ODI was hopeless, (the top five were shot out for 87), it was the arrival of hope that made the losses in the second and third games even more painful. In both of those, Smriti Mandhana (131 runs, three innings) gave the team a rocket-boosted start, only for the middle order to not find the discipline or muscle to build on that. Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur contributed a total of 87 runs this series (five innings), and both were guilty of using too many balls to get set, and then not converting starts into big scores. Their strike rates of 69 and 63, in a series where run rates crossed six, did not help India’s cause. Similarly, the middle order’s failings meant Shikha Pandey and Sushma Verma got time in the middle, but neither made a big impression.
Two teenagers showed their elders up with the bat though, one at the top of the order, the other at the bottom. 18-year old Pooja Vastrakar showed the makings of a bowling all-rounder; her maiden ODI fifty from No 9 displaying both courage and skill. And 17-year-old Jemimah Rodrigues might just have ended Punam Raut’s ODI career, her brisk 42 on Sunday impressing one and all with its intent and construction.
More than once, Raj was critical of her medium pacers, who struggled for consistency. While the Jhulan Goswami’s absence was certainly felt, the numbers point to a more worrying factor. India’s spinners failed to make any impact in the series, taking six wickets amongst the three of them, whereas Pandey finished as India’s highest wicket taker, with five. On the other hand, Australia’s spinners took 18 wickets between them, and that tells the story of how a team wins in India. It was disconcerting how Australia’s Jess Jonassen bowled more accurately than India’s own left-arm spinners, and Amanda Wellington extracted more turn from the pitches than Poonam Yadav could. Then compare the runs the two sides made on a flat wicket, and one might conclude that Australia used the Indian conditions much better than India did.
Raj may have missed the first ODI with a viral fever, but a different infection affected the Indian team, one that seemed to give the players Teflon-hands as well as raise temperatures. India spilled 10 chances, not counting a few more that were not straightforward. Six came in the third ODI alone, assisting Australia in achieving their highest score against India. Twice in the series, batswomen who were let off went on to score hundreds.
It is understandable when a batswoman or bowler fails; each ball, after all, is an individual contest, gladiatorial in nature. But when it comes to fielding, there is no one else trying to target your stumps, or hit you over the top. Fielding is the most individual aspect of this team game, and it is there that India lost the series more than any other department.
Raj deflected it to the shortcomings of the bowling unit again. “Sometimes may be with the leaking of boundaries on bad balls, it affects the whole time. If she drops a catch and the batswoman goes on to score a 100, that’s a very infectious energy which spreads.” That didn’t seem to affect the ground fielding though, which was often brilliant. Almost fittingly, fielding coach Biju George was not around to provide answers, having left for Mumbai to shepherd the India A team.
There was a strong case for Rodrigues to open the batting after a good show in South Africa, but India persisted with Raut, whose career strike rate in India is 50.49. Raut did nothing to improve that, costing India strong starts in both games she played. The impact Rodrigues made when she was finally given the opening slot was immediate; her strike rotation skills freeing the pressure on Mandhana, who in turn looked her most fluent in the third ODI.
Also incredulous was India’s decision to field first on a flat track in the second ODI. Similarly, the dropping of Veda Krishnamurthy for the last game seemed excessive; two failures could not erase her vital contributions in South Africa. “There are some players who needs to sit out for a game, realise where they have gone wrong,” said Raj of the decision. “The second match, they way she got out at a time when there were no batswoman there, we required her to be little more responsible.”
This last line brings us to the buzzwords for the Indian women’s team before the series: contracts, professionalism and accountability. It reflects poorly on the player that she needs to be dropped to re-inculcate responsibility. Indeed, with the series televised, all three matches reflected poorly for a team whose last encounter with Australia is chiseled into the minds of the public. Television brings visibility, but it also brings exposure. The hosts’ failings were laid bare, rolled out like the covers on a pitch for all to see. The result is no surprise, but it is the manner of its achievement that will bruise the Indian fans.
Raj said the team needs to “move on” from that semi-final win against Australia. They do, and the fans need to stop expecting 171 every time Harmanpreet comes to the crease. But like most women’s teams across the world, India also need to be aware of their image, one that has taken a beating. “Yes, putting out a good brand of cricket is also important, that’s how we will retain interest among people,” admitted Raj.
Losing and winning is part of the game. But even in losses, India need to become ‘good losers’, and take games closer. The 20,000 fans at Vadodara, for starters, deserved better.