There were all the usual suspects: Smriti Mandhana started things off, a few silken drives punctuating a circumspect innings. She went at a sedate pace, perhaps keeping foremost in mind the patience that the coach has asked her to cultivate. With Jemimah Rodrigues, she stitched a 69-run opening stand after the England captain had inserted India, thwarting any hopes of early wickets. Only a freak dismissal (or a well planned long hop) removed her, for 24 off 42.
Rodrigues outshone her, and it is a measure of her growth in this team that at just 18 years of age, she is now counted as a usual suspect. Playing at her home ground, she scored 48 at a much faster strike rate of 82.75. Her flicks over the on side were striking, but the two straight drives down the ground stand tall in memory.
Then there was Mithali Raj, imperious with her drives and unflappable amid the chaos. From 69 for no loss, India slipped to 95 for 5, including the wicket of Rodrigues, as England clawed back. But Mithali’s class ensured that India were not completely lost at sea, and her patient 44 at a strike rate of just under 60 steered them through the choppy waters.
And finally Jhulan Goswami, who always has the stomach for a scrap. Coming in at 149 for six, she showed that you can play shots with sense, striking the only six of the match in a 37 ball 30, which was instrumental in taking the Indian total past 200.
But the match did not belong to them.
The first ODI belonged to the lesser lights of the Indian team. To players who don’t always grab headlines, whose names and stories you may not know, and whose faces may be unfamiliar to you. Mithali and Smriti make the posters, but you need these players to make the team.
Starting with Taniya Bhatia. India have off late hidden their wicketkeepers because they were in the team more for their glovework. Bhatia has been similarly endangered in front of the wicket. She earned her India colours early in 2018, but Friday saw her take guard for only the 14th time in international cricket, and just her third in ODIs.
Bhatia is competent with the gloves without being brilliant, but it is with the bat that she put in her biggest contribution for Friday’s game. The fewer the opportunities, the more pressure there is to make the most of them, so there would have been no shortage of butterflies when she joined Mithali at the precipice of 95 for 5. One wrong step would have exposed the tail with India not even past 100, but in Mithali she had the best safety rope possible.
After taking 12 balls to get off the mark, she seemed more assured as she spent time at the crease. She used her feet, cut confidently, swept when the occasion presented itself, but most importantly she looked for runs, refusing to go into a defensive shell. That approach brought her 24 off her next 29 balls, but it also cost her her wicket; keen for a single, she was denied and turned too slow, caught short at the non-striker’s end by a brilliant direct hit from midwicket. But her runs taught the Indian team to trust their ‘keeper a little more.
With just 202 on the board, the Indians needed early wickets, and enter Shikha Pandey. Pandey’s place in the side, so certain leading up to the 2017 Women’s World Cup, has been in flux. She is not the first choice seamer in T20Is and didn’t even make the squad for the 2018 T20 World Cup. She warmed the bench for almost all of India’s tour to Sri Lanka. As one of the few genuine inswingers in world cricket, she should be an asset to the side but has sometimes been inconsistent when given opportunities.
Not on Friday. At a venue where swing was the bigger threat than seam, Pandey took on the attacking role while Goswami held tight from the other end. Swing accounted for Amy Jones, giving India a wicket in the second over of England’s chase. And the swing came back to pin Sarah Taylor in front of the stumps, in the 10th over. In between, Pandey conceded just eight runs. That burst was the first crack, and much later, the spinners pried it open.
And finally Ekta Bisht. No new kid on the block. She still looks baby faced but she’s the third member of the thirty-something club in the team, with almost a hundred international games under her belt. And yet she’s found herself on the bench more than the field in 2018. In T20Is she’s slipped behind Radha Yadav in the pecking order. And in ODIs, Rajeshwari Gayakwad is a constant threat to her spot. So whenever she plays, she must feel like she is playing for her place.
She’s doing all right in 2019. In New Zealand she started the ODI series with a three-wicket haul, and celebrated a return to Indian conditions with four at the Wankhede on Friday, including a burst of three wickets in four balls. But her biggest contributions were tactical and tactile. With Knight and Natalie Sciver well set in a 73-run partnership, Bisht and Mithali decided to try an over the wicket line. Immediately, half-chances were created and then Bisht seized the momentum. A backhand flick of a shot that was hit straight back to her saw Sciver short of the crease at the non-striker’s end. And then Bisht led the rout of the England batting, leaving Knight stranded.
And so India pulled off a bit of a heist to go 1-0 up in the series. But more than what they pulled off, they will be happier about who did it for them.