Let us be fair. India Women, having won their last four ODI series, were expected to beat South Africa Women at home. However, two things stand out. First, the 3-0 sweep was an improvement on the four consecutive 2-1 series wins; and secondly, all thirteen cricketers who have featured in the series have delivered at some point, contributing towards the clean sweep in some way.
The dead-rubber curse
India had recovered from their 0-3 defeat against Australia at home last year with a win against England, in a way avenging the heartbreak in the 2017 World Cup final. Since then they won in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and against England at home.
India had taken unassailable 2-0 leads in each of their last three series before losing the redundant third matches. It was turning out to be a trait that was more annoying than worrisome. There were murmurs here – justifiably so – when India crumbled for 146, more so after South Africa reached 137/7 in response.
But the Indian spinners held their nerve. Mansi Joshi took a freakish catch at mid-off, off Ekta Bisht, off a shot that richoceted off the bowler; Shabnim Ismail found the only fielder in the deep across some distance, off Harmanpreet Kaur; and Mithali Raj’s masterstroke of getting Jemimah Rodrigues – who had never taken an international wicket till then – worked.
And India ended an unwanted streak of losing dead-rubber matches.
The Punia decision
Smriti Mandhana’s injury just before the series had come as a blow for India. Mandhana was, after all, the top-ranked batter in the world. An earlier Indian side would have reverted to the conventional strategy of reverting to Punam Raut as Rodrigues’ opening partner. Raut, after all, had been Mandhana’s opening partner till India decided to push Rodrigues up the order.
Another option would have been to open with Deepti Sharma, who has often been used as an emergency opener. It was at the top that Sharma had got her 188, still the highest individual score for India Women in ODIs (and third highest in history).
The Indian ODI approach has almost always been to have someone at the top to graft her way to a long innings. Unfortunately, that concept is getting outdated with every passing day.
Sometime ago, India had decided to go with two aggressive batters at the top instead of the using a grafter like Raut or Sharma. They had used both Mandhana and Rodrigues in this format till Mandhana got injured.
They decided to stick to that and use the uncapped Priya Punia, for she fitted the bill. Raut, Raj, Kaur, and Sharma all batted at their usual positions. Punia had not quite taken the world by storm in her brief T20I stint in New Zealand – she had fielded ordinarily to boot – but they decided to give her another go.
She grabbed the chance with both hands. The bowlers and Rodrigues (who got a fifty) did make Punia’s work easy in the first match, but the runs still needed to be scored, and she did considerably well for a debutant. She also played a neat cameo in the second.
Solid in the middle
India had to pull off a record chase in the second ODI. This time two entirely different batters – Raut and, to nobody’s surprise, Raj – contributed with fifties before Kaur finished things off in a flurry of boundaries.
Kaur was the only one of the top five who did not get a fifty in the series, but she followed her cameo in the second match with 38 in the third, India’s highest score of the match. And once she fell in the third match, Shikha Pandey pushed India to 146, reminding everyone why she is always a threat against South Africa.
Walking out at 55/5, Taniya Bhatia disappointed in her only innings of the series, but she impressed all and sundry with her sublime glovework – especially her stumpings in the first match. Given her ability to hit big, an experimental promotion is perhaps in order.
The new-ball pair
Of course, Pandey delivered with ball as well (this was South Africa!). In the series, she struck four times in the middle overs to peg South Africa back. And when Jhulan Goswami sat out in the third match, Pandey took over as spearhead, a role she has got used to from her T20I stints. Mansi Joshi, who replaced Goswami, got only three overs but took out dangerous Lizelle Lee.
Goswami herself struck with the first ball of the series. She bothered the South Africans in the first two matches, bowling with a probing line and length, at times moving the ball in from the pitch off a length.
Despite the undeniable quality, however, the lack of a third seamer in the country has been evident for some time. Joshi’s appearances have been too sporadic.
Since 2017, Goswami (223) and Pandey (263) have sent down, between them, 486 of the 607.2 overs (about 80 percent) bowled by Indian seamers. The dependence on the pair has restricted India to a two-seam-three-spin attack, thus restricting their flexibility. And Goswami’s T20I retirement has left India with only Pandey in the seam department – not an ideal scenario to have.
Perhaps the reserve seamer needs to get more opportunities than “dead-rubber” matches. Perhaps two, even three matches a series.
Spin to win
Of course, eventually had to come down to the spinners, who wheeled on like clockwork through the middle and end overs every time. They did not buckle under pressure, whether against the heavy artillery in South Africa’s middle order in the second match or they needed to defend 147 in the third. None of them went for over four runs an over in the entire series.
Poonam Yadav, Ekta Bisht, and Sharma were all prolific. When Poonam missed the final match, Rajeshwari Gayakwad demonstrated India’s enviable problem of riches by taking 2/22 from 10 overs, the highlight being one that spun it at near-right angle to bowl Lara Goodall. And when they ran out of spinners with two wickets still standing in the final match, Kaur and Rodrigues took their only wickets of the series.
All in all, this has been a comprehensive all-round performance from the Indians. If only they can find that extra seamer