India lost their fourth consecutive Twenty20 International on Sunday (10 February), but if one eye is on building a team for the future keeping next year’s T20 World Cup in Australia in mind, as captain Harmanpreet Kaur has made it clear, then it is important to mark the significant difference between the first three losses and the last one because of the added experience in the middle-order.
Jemimah Rodrigues was batting beautifully in the World T20 semi-final against England in November last year, but her departure in the 14th over led to India losing their last seven wickets for 23 runs in 39 balls to be bowled out for 112 in 19.3 overs. India’s next T20I was the first match of this series against New Zealand, which they lost 0-3. Chasing 160, India were 102 for 1 with Smriti Mandhana and Rodrigues having added 98 runs. The duo fell in a space of one run, and India lost their last nine wickets for 34 runs in 46 balls. Mandhana later went on to say at the press conference that “the more I bat till 18 overs, we won’t collapse.”
India batted first in the second T20I, and once again Mandhana and Rodrigues provided a solid base with a second-wicket stand of 63. But India added only 64 in last 10.3 overs after Mandhana’s exit, despite Rodrigues making an attractive 53-ball 72. Lack of support from the other end proved decisive in a game that New Zealand won off the last ball to seal the series.
Mithali Raj did not play in these three T20Is despite being available for selection. The controversy that erupted because of Mithali’s non-inclusion in the knockout clash in the World T20 is well documented, and it led to the non-renewal of Ramesh Powar’s tenure as coach, leading to WV Raman's appointment for the role.
When Mithali was named in the T20I squad for the tour of New Zealand, it was believed that she will regain her place. Her credentials in the format are among the best. She is India’s highest run-getter in the format, and crucially was the 'Player of the Match' in the last two games she played in the World T20 before missing the final league affair against Australia due to an injury.
It was not to be as she watched two more insipid batting performances from the sidelines.
With the series lost and Dayalan Hemalatha injured, Mithali was brought back for the last game. Even though India lost, the way she used her experience to keep the chase alive till the last ball did not go unnoticed.
Chasing 162, India once again rode on the combined brilliance of Mandhana and Rodrigues as they put on a brisk 47-run stand after Priya Punia’s early dismissal. When Rodrigues and Kaur fell in a space of 2.5 overs, another familiar collapse looked imminent. But the only difference was that Mithali was still there.
India needed 60 off 49 balls when Mithali took guard, and the need of the hour was to rotate the strike, not play any risky strokes and slowly reduce the gap between balls left and runs required. Her presence allowed Mandhana to remain calm and not press the panic button early. They put on 21 runs off 22 balls, of which only seven were dots.
Watching Mithali use her deftness to find the third-man fence once and the gaps in the in-field was a refreshing change because no middle-order batswoman in the Indian team has shown those skills in T20Is in recent past. Even when Mandhana, after playing two dots in a row, tried to manufacture a shot against Sophie Devine, and was out in the 16th over, the chase still looked under control.
When Deepti Sharma joined Mithali, India needed 39 off 27 balls – a near-impossible task for a raw middle-order, but completely doable with Mithali in charge. She guided Deepti, who has a problem to find the gaps in the initial part of her innings, well and the pair brought it down to four needed off the final ball.
Mithali was unable to find the boundary and was left unbeaten on 24 off 20 balls, but that’s not the point. She was batting at No 5 for only the second time in her career — the first occasion being against Sri Lanka in 2009 — and yet looked completely in sync with the demands of the situation.
She manipulated the bowlers and the field to find the boundary thrice. More importantly, her knock consisted of only five dot balls.
In a tight chase, it is always important for the batswomen to gauge the pulse of the match and react accordingly. Apart from skills, such situations require batswomen to soak in the pressure instead of panicking, and very few from the Indian camp are capable of that.
For that, a batswoman needs to back herself that she can always make up her strike rate after a slow start. It ensures that her hands are not tight while playing the strokes, and she is always in control because the odd boundary is bound to come. No one has such match awareness in the Indian middle-order, while Mithali has been a master at adapting to situations through her two-decade career.
Maybe in the future Arundhati Reddy, Taniya Bhatia, Hemalatha and others who are being invested on will master this art, but right now they are still not up to the standards because the big gap that exists between international cricket and India’s domestic T20 competition makes the transition in a such short notice impossible.
Kaur herself struggles when she lacks support around her, and that is primarily the reason why she is more successful for her Women’s Big Bash League franchise. This is the vacuum that Mithali can fill especially with very little time left for the T20 World Cup in Australia next year.
Obviously, whether Mithali should open the innings is another debate considering how ordinary Punia was in her game-reading skills through the series and Bhatia’s nervousness with the bat, but one understands the team management’s logic of trying out hitters in the PowerPlay overs. At the presentation ceremony, Kaur said that they need to work on their batting in the last 10 overs. Based on evidences available, Mithali is clearly the solution in the immediate future provided she does not retire from the format after the upcoming home series against England, as is being speculated in the media.