Mithali Raj thinks that Deepti Sharma is the only genuine allrounder in the Indian team, and she has not yet made use of all her opportunities. The runs that Shikha Pandey and Jhulan Goswami made during the One-Day International series against England does not put them in that category.
“Honestly in my opinion, we have only one all-rounder in Deepti Sharma,” Mithali said at the press conference after the third ODI which India lost by two wickets to finish with a series scoreline of 2-1. “Jhulan and Shikha are bowlers who can bat, so they pretty much don’t fit into (the) category of allrounders. And yes, Deepti, we have given her a slot since the New Zealand series but for whatever reasons she is not being able to deliver in that slot.”
Deepti batted at No 3 in four consecutive ODIs for one half-century before being demoted down the order to fit in Punam Raut for the last two games against England. Deepti’s inability to score runs consistently is further accentuated by her habit of consuming too many deliveries early without maintaining a good strike rate. However, it is a problem that is not just restricted to Deepti. India may have won their fifth out of six ODI series since the start of 2018, but the batting cupboard looks seriously empty outside of Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues and Mithali.
It is important to put some numbers in perspective. India have had seven century and 18 fifty partnerships in 18 ODIs since the tour of South Africa last year. All the hundred partnerships belong either to the first or second or third wicket, and only seven half-century stands have come after the fall of the third wicket. Either of Mandhana, Rodrigues or Mithali have not been involved only three times in these 25 associations.
Mithali spoke about the issue during the series, and she would know it is a problem deep rooted in history. Out of India’s 63 century partnerships since their ODI debut in 1978, only eight have come after the fall of the third wicket.
It was not as much of a concern as it is now because most teams struggled to field six good battwomen. But now with the depth of batting line-ups improving globally, the gap is exposed more. WV Raman, who became the coach ahead of the New Zealand tour, would have identified the issue, but what exactly is the solution?
Experienced players like Veda Krishnamurthy, Punam Raut and Mona Meshram have not been consistent enough for the team management to completely back them, and the youngsters have not yet got enough game exposure to learn the nuances of building partnerships at this level.
When Harmanpreet Kaur returns from injury, she will obviously add value but even she has been inconsistent in ODIs with just one half-century in 11 innings in the last 14 months.
India are unlikely to play three ODIs against Pakistan in the ICC Women’s Championship because of political reasons. It means they have three ODIs against Windies left before the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand. BCCI, of course, can organise more bilateral series with other teams based on their calendar, but there is no word on it yet.
Whether youngsters like Harleen Deol, Priya Punia and others are the answer. No one knows yet because they have not got a long enough run to be identified as the future of Indian batting. The vast difference in standard between India’s domestic cricket and international arena means that no matter how many runs these new players score to earn an India call-up, they have to still start fresh.
One solution with BCCI is to organise more ‘A’ tours between now and the World Cup so that the second line is constantly being tuned to match up to the demands. This is also a point Mithali stressed on during the series. Only then will selectors will be in an appropriate position to strike the balance between giving newcomers a chance and continuing to trust a certain group of seniors who are on the fringe.
While the middle-order question awaits a definitive solution, India’s biggest takeaway from the England series was the way Shikha bowled. Her eight wickets, which included career-best returns of 4 for 18, came at an average of 9.12 and economy of 2.60.
Even though Goswami was also in red hot form, it is for the first time that Shikha outshone her idol. This is an important transition in Indian cricket considering Goswami is in the evening of her career. Shikha credited Raman for identifying minor flaws in her bowling, which she has corrected to be more effective. On commentary, Anjum Chopra observed that while in the past Shikha used to run straight to the wicket, now her run-up is angular which gives her more options against the batswoman.
Many observers felt that Shikha should have been the player of the series, but of late it has become impossible to take that right away from Mandhana. She has now won the player of the series award four times in last six series.
Mandhana now has twenty 50-plus scores in ODIs, only behind Mithali’s count of 59 in the list of Indians. She is the new batting queen, but that also means there is always a burden on her to deliver. Mandhana recognises it, but it is unfair to expect her to score in every match. It makes the middle-order vacuum even more critical. In the third ODI, she was batting beautifully on 66 when Katherine Brunt trapped her with a short delivery in the 29th over and she was caught at deep square leg. It triggered a collapse as India lost six wickets within 21 runs and never recovered from there. Being able to convert fifties into hundreds is still an area Mandhana has to master.
India’s spinners were not as impactful as they would have hoped to be, and that is largely because of England’s preparedness. Natalie Sciver, Heather Knight and Danielle Wyatt gave lessons to the world on how to handle Indian spinners. They played the sweep shot to good effect, as Ekta Bisht, Poonam Yadav and Deepti finished with a combined tally of 11 wickets in three games. Yet from an individual perspective, Bisht, who played two games, was another big talking point as it was her canny bowling that gave India the opening to win the first ODI.
A series win against England is always commendable, but those in charge need to think beyond the regular brief to address few areas that need immediate addressing.