The Haunting of Lord's 2017. It's easy to imagine a background score by that name playing in the heads of the Indian batswomen as they tried to chase down England's 207 in the first match between the two teams since that tragic World Cup final. Thinking back to that day, you can almost hear it: a tune that aches, chords that shackle feet and that breaks a billion hearts. If the staves could be written on a cricket field, they would look much like India’s scorecard: a shudder at the start, a long-lasting high note by an opener, promising accompaniments from the middle order, but no crescendo, no finale. Just an abrupt and discordant finish, leaving you stunned by the effort, but unsatisfied, longing for more, but knowing there is none to be had.
On Friday in Nagpur, India struck the unlikeliest of final notes. From a position that seemed destined to repeat the result of 23 July 2017, India somehow snuck home to a sigh of relief.
The win was built on the back of a Smriti Mandhana masterpiece – 86 runs for which she was rightly named Player of the Match. Mandhana has three hundreds in ODIs, and this knock should count as her fourth. On a wicket that had turn and variable bounce even before the ball lost its shine, Mandhana showed that she has more than one gameplan. She had five fifties in six international matches coming into this game, striking at 165 in the T20Is, and 109 in the ODIs. But in the scorching Nagpur heat, she put together an innings at a strike rate of just under 79. In her words, “I have never played so slowly in international cricket.”
It was a clinic in adaptation. This was not an artist adjusting to the acoustics of the hall, but an engineer building a hall with acoustics to match the artist. This was a structure built with purpose, without a single ostentatious brick in it. And still there was room for extravagance, fitted within the direction of the design; those four sixes she hit, three of which were in the ‘V’.
Mandhana’s 86 might have been all that was required had India been more aggressive in the field. After losing the toss, England scored at more than a-run-a-ball in the first 10 overs, losing no wickets. Then the Indian spinners went to work on the first truly ‘Indian’ surface they encountered this home season. Poonam Yadav prospered immediately, claiming the top three in a space of 11 balls. England were then reduced to 102/5, which became 141/7. But the last three pairs put on 66 runs, aided by a reticence by India to go for the kill: fielders were dropped back despite the batswomen not getting much wood on leather, and much of the pressure was taken off in the middle overs. This allowed England past 200, a significant barrier on a pitch where India had to bat second.
It took its toll, with India losing wickets regularly, but not frequently enough to give England the early ascendency. The experiment with Devika Vaidya opening the batting didn’t work out, and in the game where she became ODI cricket’s most-capped player, Mithali Raj fell for a duck.
After that came two fifty partnerships, Mandhana combining with Harmanpreet Kaur for 51, then with Deepti Sharma for 74. The latter seemed set to take India home, when the ghost of Lord’s called, perhaps worried that it had been forgotten. India lost five wickets for 23, and when Shikha Pandey was run out in nearly the same fashion as in the World Cup final, the die seemed cast. Eighteen off 18, and the last pair at the crease.
But what Poonam and Ekta Bisht lack in height, they made up with intent. If their desperate situation conjured up bravery, luck followed. Bisht’s swipe across the line with 14 required off 12 was bookended by two costly errors: first Anya Shrubsole, the World Cup final heroine, overstepped. Then Danielle Wyatt misfielded at deep square-leg, gifting India five runs, an extra ball, and a free hit. A boundary from Poonam in the same over turned the tide, and in a game where both teams conceded 26 extras, the winning runs came off a wide.
India needed this win badly, having won just one game in seven matches at home this season before this. More so, they needed to win chasing against England, and create new memories to replace the ones that would have resurfaced on Friday, from nearly a year ago.
But once the serotonin settles, an honest look is required. Only five England players who played that final featured in the England side on Friday, whereas India were at full strength. After Mandhana, the extras contributed the highest score. The left-hander has shown the kind of consistency usually associated only with Raj till now, and there can be few higher compliments. But the team leans on her, just as it did on Raj, especially with Harmanpreet and Veda Krishnamurthy seeming low on confidence. When the middle order was under pressure, the intent to score deserted them, trapping them further in the slow nature of the wicket.
India’s experiments with the opening slot, despite Jemimah Rodrigues’ form, will do no good to the teenager’s confidence. And wicketkeeping remains a problem; Sushma Verma’s glovework seems to be on the wane, and she has her limitations with the bat.
The Indian team will be singing a happy tune on Friday night, but this was a scrape, no question about it. In the background floats a more familiar strain, one they would rather forget. For that, an entirely new composition is required.