In the first ever women’s T20I clash between India and New Zealand on the latter’s soil, the White Ferns extended their strong record in the format against the visitors, with a 23-run win to claim a 1-0 lead in the series.
The story of the game was a familiar one: no, not the exclusion of Mithali Raj. Without as much uproar as the last time, the idea to drop Mithali was cleared by the team management in favour of players who are more likely to play the next T20 World Cup. Reports suggest that she will bow out from the format after the series against England at home. But even in her absence, there was a familiar theme repeating itself: if she gets out, it is game over for India. Except, maybe, when you replace Mithali with Smriti Mandhana.
Mandhana’s wicket might be the most sought after in world cricket at the moment. She adjusted to the pace of the international game well before the rest of her team, and understands how matches can be won and lost in the first six overs. And in the form of her life, she helped India to a strong Powerplay score of 58/1 in the first T20I, scoring 31 off 18, chasing New Zealand’s challenging target of 160.
Mithali’s ouster meant that India would miss her partnerships with Mandhana (941 runs in 35 innings), but the 22-year old seems to have found a capable replacement in Jemimah Rodrigues. After their two century partnerships while opening the batting in ODIs, Rodrigues walked in, in the first over, and combined with Mandhana for a 98-run stand off just 66 balls. At the halfway mark India were 90/1, requiring just another 70 runs with many wickets in hand.
But when both set batters were dismissed within five balls, Indians begin to falter. Since the triangular series in India last year, Mandhana alone has scored almost 20% of the teams runs. These have come at a strike rate of 131.2 and an average of 28.6. From the most precarious position in the game - opening the batting in the power play - she has shown remarkable consistency while not compromising on urgency. On Wednesday, when the partnership between Mandhana and Rodrigues was broken, India needed 58 from 51 balls. They then lost eight wickets for 34 runs to be bowled out for 136.
Harmanpreet Kaur was batted a spot lower than expected, and by the time she was set she had lost another two partners, and eventually succumbed to the climbing run-rate. Perhaps the need to give less experienced batters more time in the middle is what dictated the promotion for Hemalatha, who had showed enterprise with a 7-ball 15 the last time these two teams met. But against the pacy, short ball tactics of Lea Tahuhu, she was found wanting. Tahuhu ended up with figures of 3/20, including a double-wicket maiden in her last over, to claim the deserved Player of the Match award.
Hemalatha has shown the aggressive intent that this team is looking to build on, and should be given more such opportunities. But for a player who wasn’t used to wearing a helmet in domestic cricket, this is a step up and she will take time to settle in. With an idea of making a strong team for the T20 World Cup in 2020, it may not be a bad ploy to use more players in the middle-order to see who fits, and the next two games will give us more clues as to what the team management thinks of this.
But India have a challenge ahead. Even in the last T20 World Cup, New Zealand were the team that looked most comfortable against the one-sided fields India’s four-pronged spin attack used. In that game, in the face of India’s towering score of 194, New Zealand had put on 160 on the board, with the batters employing the sweep shots to disrupt fields. On Wednesday, we saw the same plan used at the Westpac Stadium; although India found the early wicket of Suzie Bates going for a sweep, the rest of the top order had more success. Sophie Devine (62), Amy Satterthwaite (33) and Katie Martin (27*) all made the most of their starts. Three of the four spinners went at more than 7 runs an over. Like New Zealand, England, the team India play next, favour the horizontal bat. So India will need a Plan B. With the next T20 World Cup in Australia, it would not be surprising if India try playing two pace bowlers at some point in this series.
With most of this squad in the early twenties, this is a side whose primary goal is to learn that they can win without Jhulan Goswami and Mithali Raj. They showed it in the last T20 World Cup. By the time the next one comes around, they need to believe that they can.
The author is a former India cricketer, and now a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She hosts the YouTube Channel, ‘Cricket With Snehal’, and tweets @SnehalPradhan