India last played a T20I more than six months ago – on 9 March 2019 against England – although the next six months till the culmination of 2020 T20 World Cup – 8 March 2020 – are going to be anything but like it.
The five-match T20I series against South Africa in Surat will pilot India’s packed journey to the T20 World Cup in Australia next year.
Despite no international fixtures in the previous six months for the Indian team, several players from the squad were a part of the three-team Women’s T20 Challenge held in May in Jaipur, whereas Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur were joined by young guns Jemimah Rodrigues and Deepti Sharma, in their first Super League gig, in England, in August with finals held on 1 September.
Apart from the two T20 leagues, many players have competed in the 2018-19 domestic season while the likes of pace-bowling all-rounder Pooja Vastrakar return to the fold after a long injury layoff.
The Women’s T20 Challenge provided spotlight to many young girls but particularly to two bright prospects – Shafali Verma and Harleen Deol – both of whom have made it to India's squad for the first three T20Is. Although Deol had already experienced her first taste of international cricket during the home series against England in 2019, her initiation wasn’t the smoothest as the batting all-rounder managed just 23 runs in her first three innings. However, the tournament in Jaipur provided the 21-year-old from Himachal Pradesh with few more opportunities. She scored a confident 36 and 43 in the two games for Trailblazers.
Having earned her maiden call-up for the Indian squad, 15-year-old Shafali Verma is now in line to become the country's second youngest international cricketer in the first T20I of the series at Lalbhai Contractor Stadium.
Understandably, captain Harmanpreet doesn't want to add any pressure on the teenager from Haryana, when she said that the team has not burdened the teenager with any responsibilities.
“The message to Shafali is clear that she should play her natural game," Harmapreet said on the eve of the first T20I. "We haven’t assigned her any responsibilities. It is only good for the team if she plays her attacking game and gives us the start we want."
There is palpable excitement surrounding Rohtak-born Shafali who stunned viewers with her powerful hitting in her first outing during the lung opener of the Women’s T20 Challenge, where she struck a sparkling 34 off 31 balls.
Even England’s Danielle Wyatt, one of the best T20I cricketers going around in the world, was amazed by Shafali’s talent.
“Shafali is going to be a superstar for India probably in a year or so. I think she'll break into the Indian team. She stood out for me in the nets from Day 1. I didn't think she was that young, and then the coach said she was only 15, I was like: ‘Wow’,” Wyatt, Shafali’s teammate at Trailblazers, had said after they had won the first game.
If Women’s T20 challenge in 2019 unearthed two gems, the Super League attested the class of two young but already established names in Indian cricket – Rodrigues and Deepti.
Playing for Yorkshire diamonds, Rodrigues’ run-fest saw her blast 401 runs at an average of 57.28 and a superior strike rate of 149.62. Her exploits also include a 51-ball century, the fastest in the tournament's history.
Deepti too had a stellar maiden season with the Western Storms where her all-round skills proved pivotal in few games, especially her remarkable support act to captain Heather Knight’s heroics to anchor her team to in the final of the tournament.
Coming lower down the order, Deepti scored important runs for her side – 106 runs in the limited opportunities she received saw her batting average climb to 53, but importantly, her strike rate was an excellent 145. Her contributions with the ball saw her bag nine wickets at an average of 28.22 while her strike rate was 25.5.
Bold Shafali will open the batting with vice-captain Mandhana who forms the batting core alongside Harmanpreet and Rodrigues with Deol and wicket-keeper Taniya Bhatia completing the batting group.
Veteran Veda Krishnamurthy has slipped down the pecking order with the emergence of new talent. She will have stiff competition to clinch her spot in the side. Deepti is expected to be India's frontline all-rounder with Vastrakar, Shikha Pandey, Anuja Patil and Radha Yadav – all bowlers who are capable options with the bat.
Star leg-spinner Poonam Yadav is once again expected to create a lot of problems with her loopy leg-breaks for the tourists who will be accompanied by Radha as the other spinner.
Visitors South Africa are coming into the series with a few key names missing from their squad with the most notable absentees being regular captain Dane Van Niekerk, who missed South Africa’s home series against Pakistan due to a foot injury, suffered a recurrence during the Super League that will keep her out of action for the tour to India.
Sune Luus, leg spin-bowling all-rounder, will continue her role as stand-in captain of South Africa and will be eyeing her second series win against India after beating Pakistan at home earlier this year.
The other players South Africa will miss in the series will be the hard-hitting all-rounder Chloe Tryon, who is out due to injury, while fast-bowling all-rounder Marizanne Kapp made herself unavailable for the T20I series in India.
Albeit the squad is bolstered by the return of senior pro and pacer Ayabonga Khaka, who battled a career-threatening shoulder injury and is ready to make her international comeback after undergoing surgery. Khaka was a part of the squad that toured Bangladesh for the Emerging Series and also picked two wickets in the preceding warm-up fixture against Board President’s XI (BPXI).
An experienced Trisha Chetty, too, comes into the squad that will boost South Africa’s batting line up.
The destructive opener Lizelle Lee, have already rung warning bells with a match-winning 65 off 48 balls against BPXI along with middle-order mainstay Mignon du Preez, who carted 40 runs off just 18 balls to propel her side to a formidable 174/5 in 20 overs during the second warm-up fixture after the first game was abandoned without a ball being bowled.
World No 2 bowler, Shabnim Ismail, will lead South Africa’s pace attack. She accounted for BPXI openers – Thirush Kamini (2) and Shafali (0) – and finished with three wickets to her name.
To counter the issue of lack of game time, Cricket South Africa kick-started a four-team event called Women's T20 Super League in September.
"We need to address the lack of game time and provide more competitive cricket for the women's structure in order to produce quality cricketers and to improve the pool of players for national selection," CSA head of pathways Edward Khoza had said when the inaugural season was launched.
Akin to how India found promising talents in the Women's T20 Challenge, the competition in South Africa, also aided selectors with fresh faces. Among them the left-arm spinner Nonkululeko Mlaba is benefited with her first-ever call up into the national side while all-rounder Anneke Bosch returns into the national set-up after playing four ODIs in 2016.
"Nonkululeko Mlaba has been included as a new cap into the squad on the back of a successful Emerging Tour against Bangladesh and the Women’s T20 Super League. She is a talented left-arm spinner who will complement our bowling attack.
"Anneke Bosch has been a steady contributor for North West and was also part of the recent Emerging Squad, and she gives us as an extra all-rounder option," commented CSA selection convener Clinton du Preez had said after announcing the squad.
With less than five months left for the T20 World Cup, both teams will be eager to blood in youngsters, identify talent to form a competitive bunch of players and start preparations at full steam.
All five games are day and night fixtures with Lalbhai Contractor Stadium in Surat ready to become the latest venue to host an international game in India.
Indian women’s squad for first three T20Is: Harmanpreet Kaur (c), Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues, Deepti Sharma, Taniya Bhatia (wicket-keeper), Poonam Yadav, Shikha Pandey, Arundhati Reddy, Pooja Vastrakar, Radha Yadav, Veda Krishnamurthy, Harleen Deol, Anuja Patil, Shafali Verma, Mansi Joshi.
South Africa women’s squad: Sune Luus (c), Anneke Bosch, Tasmin Brits, Nadine de Klerk, Shabnim Ismail, Sinalo Jafta, Ayabonga Khaka, Lara Goodall, Lizelle Lee (wicket-keeper), Nonkululeko Mlaba, Tumi Sekhukhune, Nondumiso Shangase, Mignon du Preez, Laura Wolvaardt.