India clearly have a problem in Twenty20 Internationals, and there may not be enough time to address it ahead of the T20 World Cup in Australia early next year. Unless BCCI go out of their way to organise more matches, India have six T20Is - three at home against England and possibly three against Windies later in the year - before the multi-nation tournament.
Smriti Mandhana was terrific in the three-match series in New Zealand, topping the batting charts with 180 runs at an average of 60 and a strike-rate of 146.34. She topped the boundary hitting charts with 22 fours and five sixes. While Suzie Bates, who was the player of the series, was the second-best batswoman, Jemimah Rodrigues was the only other to cross the 100-run mark. She finished with 132 runs at an impressive strike-rate of 128.15.
That, however, was pretty much India's batting in a nutshell as they lost all the three T20Is despite being in winning positions. While the duo made 312 runs between them, the rest piled up only 109 runs, exposing the lack of depth in the batting unit once again.
Harmanpreet Kaur, the captain, is a big-ticket player, but her lack of consistency and inability to deliver in New Zealand especially when she needed to just support Mandhana and Rodrigues is concerning.
Before the World T20 last year there was a lot of talk around promoting youngsters and encouraging them to play fearless cricket. But it is clearly evident that apart from the three none of the Indian batters have the technique to sustain the demand. Taniya Bhatia has looked nervous with the bat in hand, and Priya Punia was completely out of place both as a batter and a fielder in the three T20Is. With Mandhana in fine touch, India had raced to 29 for no loss in 2.3 overs in their chase of 162 in the third T20I. Punia just needed to rotate the strike and play second fiddle. Instead she stepped out without having a clue of what she was doing, and was stumped.
Harleen Deol, N Anusha and Devika Vaidya are a few other youngsters, who are not currently a part of the setup, who come to mind as possible opening options, but even they lack exposure because the standard of India's domestic competitions is not among the best in the world and that gap is evident with so many players struggling to make the transition.
"We need to address those (batting) issues as soon as possible. We need someone who can bat through 20 overs and someone who can go in at the middle overs and get runs later on," Mandhana said at the press conference post the series loss. "I think the girls fought really well. If you look back at the series and see, 70 or 80 percent of the times we were in winning positions. That's a good takeaway but there are a lot of things which we can improve."
This makes the role of Mithali Raj in the T20I setup critical. Ignored for the first two games, she showed in the third T20I that she can be a perfect middle-order batter and hold the chase together. It's because of her unbeaten 20-ball 24 that India lost by two runs and not a bigger margin. Since the start of 2018, Mithali has made 383 runs in the non-powerplay overs at a strike-rate of 127.24 over 12 games. Only Rodrigues and Kaur have more runs in that phase. Apart from Mandhana, no one else has crossed the 300-run mark.
The other options that the selectors have is to bring back VR Vanitha and Veda Krishnamurthy. Vanitha, primarily an opener, has not represented India since 2016 but has been doing fairly well in the domestic circuit. She could be given the role of a floater in order to deepen the batting reserves. She recently hit a double-century in an inter-club match in Bangalore. Veda has blown hot and cold, but at least has the reputation of delivering when pushed to a corner.
There should not be a debate at all after the team management has committed to the idea of building a team for the future, but such is the lack of depth among available talent that the need is for quickfix solution. With Shikha Pandey sitting on the bench, Arundhati Reddy and Mansi Joshi had the responsibility of delivering as the two premier fast bowlers but they were not always at their best. It led to Gargi Banerjee, the former India opener, voicing for Jhulan Goswami to take back her T20I retirement. Reddy and Joshi will be needed in Australia, but do they have enough time to be ready before that?
If India really want youngsters to rise to the occasion within a few games of making their debut then women's Indian Premier League at the earliest is a must. Last year's one-off exhibition match or this year's proposed three-team competition are not the solutions. There has to be a serious approach to it. The theory that there are not enough talent to make even four teams is lazy because you will never know till you don't try and you will never improve till you don't start.
Meanwhile, India's performance in the One-Day International series was qualified success. The way the spinners bowled, and the control displayed by Goswami and Pandey gave India smallish targets to chase in the first two matches. The ability to break partnerships in middle overs and then exert complete control has been India's strength in 50-over cricket, and it was on full display as New Zealand were bowled out for 192 and 161 to concede the series. It helped that India, who were touring the country for the first time since 2006 and only Mithali and Jhulan were a part of that team, went ten days in advance to get acquainted with the conditions.
Mandhana was clearly the star of the tour with 276 runs in six matches across both the formats with one century and three fifties. She, however, was not completely happy because of her failure to see through two chases in T20Is, and such hunger can only augur well for Indian cricket.
Though India have improved significantly as a fielding unit, there were a few ordinary moments through the tour but that is hardly a dent on WV Raman's first assignment as the team's coach. The focus now shifts to the home series against England, and India's first priority will be to win the three ODIs and strengthen their position on the Women's Championship table. With India unlikely to play against Pakistan, the series against England and Windies are crucial for them to avoid the qualifiers.
(Statistical inputs from @_hypocaust)