India’s 100th T20 international turned out to be game of twenty questions for the team. A four-wicket loss to New Zealand at Eden Park handed the hosts the series 2-0, and left India nursing the holes in the team left by the retirement of Jhulan Goswami, and what seems to be the impending exit of Mithali Raj.
India had already begun auditions for Goswami’s replacement, but now must also face up to the bigger vacancy. Mithali opened the innings for 43 of the 80 T20Is she has played so far, almost uninterrupted from 2014. It followed the logic that your best batter face as many overs as possible. But even when the global game replaced best with fastest, India persisted with that strategy, forcing the flashpoint the 2018 T20 World Cup saw: Mithali was dropped down the order, then from the XI, and finally, a coach removed.
Had another player been used in the opening position while Mithali was still central to the team’s vision, she could have buttressed the middle order as India experimented at the top. As it stands, the new coach seems to have taken the same call as the old one, and is looking to invest in youth, both at the top of the order, and in the middle. And while this new brand of cement sets, expect some wonky Manhattans from the Indian batting.
Which raises the question, who should India look to as a future partner for Smriti Mandhana? Let’s examine the options.
The incumbent is Priya Punia, who opened the batting in the last two T20Is. But Punia was a surprise inclusion in the T20 squad in the first place, primarily because of a reputation in domestic cricket for a high volume of runs at a slow strike rate. In 2017-18 she was the fifth-highest scorer in the One Day format, but had a strike rate of 50.09. 2018-19 was her breakout season, again finishing in the top five, with two centuries, and an improved strike rate of 75.51. Her batting talent has never been in question, but both domestic cricket and her two appearances at the international level have shown that other areas of her game, most importantly strike rotation and fielding (and relatedly, fitness), urgently need addressing.
With no other specialist batswomen in the T20I squad, there are a few players who are on the fringe of the ODI squads who might come to mind, namely Mona Meshram, Punam Raut.
Meshram and Raut both had healthy domestic seasons for Railways, and have represented India for a while, but have a history of dominating in domestic cricket only to not fit the bill in international cricket. Meshram has an ODI strike rate of 54. She has been in and out of the Indian team and is not seen as a fit for the T20 format. At 27 years, she is not out of the mix, but it would be quite the punt for the Indian team to try and see if she is more at home in the shorter format.
Raut has had more success in ODIs, and was the top scorer in the final of the 2017 World Cup. But an ODI career strike rate of 57 is what has cost her her slot in the XI, and she will need to revolutionise her game to show that she can add value to the T20 team, in which she doesn’t currently fit.
Then there is Veda Krishnamurthy, among the most talented cricketers in the country. When I first saw Veda play in domestic cricket, about a decade ago, I was impressed by how much time she had, and I rated her second only to Mithali in terms of the ease with which she batted. But despite being given a long rope in international cricket, she has blown more cold than hot, resulting in an eventual loss of place for this tour. In any case, she is a middle order bat.
Casting one’s eyes around for newer, younger talent, Jhansi Lakshmi’s 358 runs took Andhra to the semis of the One Day League, and Harleen Deol impressed in the Challenger Trophy. But there is no one knocking the door down like Jemimah Rodrigues was this time last year.
Fans may feel that the next Rodrigues is just around the corner. After all, at just 18, she has slipped into international cricket as if it was one of her favourite shoes. Surely, Indian domestic cricket is in good health, and will spit out another batting prodigy soon enough.
But Rodrigues embodies a false positive; she is an exception, amplified by a state association that has run an inter-school competition as well as an Under-16 program. Unfortunately, that association is almost as much of an exception as Rodrigues is. And India still don’t have a national Under-16 competition.
With no talent bursting through the dam, India might need to work with what they have in the search for an opening partner for Mandhana. The first six overs have more gaps than the next 14, so even a batswoman of limited skill can exploit that period.
It might be worth using two pinch hitters at the top of the order; in any case they are struggling to cope at the bottom. Taniya Bhatia has shown glimpses of the ability to fulfill that role, and Hemalatha has been promoted up the order before. Even Deepti Sharma, who is wasted batting below six, could be challenged to adapt her game to the team’s needs. And whenever Pooja Vastrakar returns to the side, she offers another genuine option at the top of the order with both bat and ball. Not opening with a specialist batswoman might also allow India to play the extra bowling option; Harmanpreet Kaur used only five in the last two games.
International exposure is the only recourse for players coming from a domestic system that does not refine them enough. India now need clarity on who their next line of batswomen are, and give them every chance to succeed, and the security to fail. The base parameters to select these need not be runs, but should certainly be fitness and intent. A period of experimentation begins now, and Indian fans should brace for a few bumps until the right combination is found.