Before the series began, it may have been hard to pick who was the favourite between the White Ferns and the Indian women. India, despite the off-field drama surrounding the change of coach, looked the stronger team, with more match-winners. But New Zealand were playing at home, in conditions they knew best, traditionally considered foreign to India.
But then Deepti Sharma ran out the dangerous Sophie Devine. The Indian spinners took eight wickets to bowl out New Zealand for 192 after a 61-run opening partnership. And the batswomen then completed the formalities on a flat pitch at Napier. Clearly, New Zealand were the ones at sea. And a deeper look into the game suggests that they have some tough swimming to do.
Worldwide, there has been an effort to produce homogenous, batting-friendly tracks for women’s internationals, to provide conditions that highlight the fastest growing facet of the sport: power hitting. While that has seen par scores rise steadily, it also means home advantage has been somewhat neutered. So with conditions loaded in the favour of the batswomen, what often sets teams apart is the bowling.
This is where India have a huge advantage against New Zealand, thanks to the quality of their spinners, and the inability of the Kiwi batswomen to negotiate them.
Poonam Yadav is barely five feet tall but has grown into one of the best bowlers in the world. She has added the googly to her arsenal, and had an impressive 2018, making the ICC Team of the Year in both formats. On Thursday (January 24), she was supported by Ekta Bisht and Deepti Sharma, providing variety and accuracy. And running drinks for India was Rajeshwari Gayakwad, who has the best bowling average and strike rate in the world since April 2016 (minimum seven matches and 100 balls).
New Zealand on the other hand, have their issues against the turning ball. The last time these teams met in an ODI, New Zealand lost eight for 52 against spin, to go from 27 for 2 to 79 all out. Not on a subcontinental dust bowl, mind you. That was in Derby, in the 2017 Women’s World Cup, on a pitch where India had put on 265 in 50 overs.
A closer look at the numbers of the four Indian spinners tells us that they like bowling to New Zealand. Poonam takes a wicket every 20.6 balls against New Zealand, second only to her strike rate against Ireland. Deepti strikes every 34 balls against them, joint second lowest among all countries she has played against. Among the top six teams, Bisht's strike rate against New Zealand is her lowest, and Gayakwad averages a wicket every 10 runs against them, only bettered by her averages against the Windies and Ireland.
India’s quality spin attack is accentuated by the fact that two of New Zealand’s best batswomen are much more comfortable against pace than they are against spin. Suzie Bates and Devine have been the backbone of the Kiwi batting for some years now. But according to CricViz data, since April 2016, Bates is dismissed every 42.6 balls against spin, compared to 90.8 against pace. The difference in Devine’s numbers is even more stark, with a dismissal every 133.6 balls to pace but just 38.4 balls to spin. New Zealand’s top five batswomen (not counting Lauren Down, who played just her fourth match) average a dismissal rate of 76.78 against pace but 47.84 against spin.
Only captain Amy Satterthwaite has comparable dismissal rates of 75 against pace and 71.6 against spin, reiterating what her footwork tells us: she is the best player of spin in the squad. Much of New Zealand’s fortunes in the series will rest on her performances.
Predictably, India attacked with four spinners, playing two all-rounders in their XI. New Zealand, meanwhile went with four pace bowling options, and two spinners (three if you count Satterthwaite, but she isn't a regular bowler). While every country in the world will pick teams based on their strengths, having world class spinners is sometimes a bigger advantage than having sheer pace.
With more women training among men, and bowling machines being ubiquitous, most top order batswomen are used to playing speeds of more than 120 kmph, which is the usual top speed in women’s cricket. And so the Indian openers took 34 runs off Lea Tahuhu’s five overs, untroubled by the little movement at impressive speeds she sent down. Conversely, it is hard to simulate Poonam’s bowling style - turning the ball both ways at speeds of less than 60 kmph - on a bowling machine.
So if India were only marginal favourites before the series began, they have shown exactly why they are clear favourites now. The batswomen backed up the good work done by the spinners, with a Smriti Mandhana century giving umpire Billy Bowden a number of excuses to show that he still has the moves. And by opening the batting with Jemimah Rodrigues, India made another smart decision and were rewarded with a record 190-run opening partnership that sealed the game. But Mandhana’s Player of the Match award notwithstanding, this game belonged to the Indian spinners. And Deepti’s right arm.