India women started the 5-match T20I series against South Africa women with an 11-run win at Surat. India might have — should have — won more convincingly, but for a fine hand by Mignon du Preez, whose 59 amounted to almost half the runs South Africa managed. It was du Preez who kept the contest alive till the last over after the Indian spinners choked the South African middle order into submission on a slow, low turner.
There was little the South Africans could do against the Indian spinners, especially in the absence of the reassuring Dane van Niekerk and the big-hitting Chloe Tryon in the middle order. They simply could not force the pace on a pitch that not only got slower as the match progressed, but also produced turn. The middle order caved in once Lizelle Lee was out of the way: from 25 for no loss they collapsed to 73/7, as good as conceding the game.
Tryon, especially, would have been ideal on pitches like these, where brute force is sometimes a surer counter to the lack of pace than immaculate timing. Her strike rate of 137 makes her one of the most feared batters in the format.
The spinners — Poonam Yadav, Deepti Sharma, Radha Yadav, and Harmanpreet Kaur — combined to form a well-oiled machine on a pitch that was tailor-made for them. Sharma kept the pressure on, becoming the first Indian to bowl three maidens in a T20I (her figures read 3-3-0-3 at one point), while Poonam as good as settled the match by taking out Laura Wolvaardt and Sune Luus off consecutive deliveries.
The Indian approach is not new. They had relied on spin on the slow West Indian tracks as well for last year's World T20. They had stuck to an attack consisting almost entirely of spinners, with a solitary seamer filling in. It had worked for India till the semi-final, when England women figured out how to play the Indian spinners, especially Poonam.
Unfortunately, a similar strategy may not work in the T20 World Cup on Australian soil. The pitches used in Women's Big Bash League are truer. The ball comes on to the bat at a pace reasonably quicker than it did at Surat. The big hitters and quick bowlers will play a role far more important than they do in India.
While Shikha Pandey may seal a spot, the other pace-bowling candidates — Pooja Vastrakar, Mansi Joshi, Arundhati Reddy, among others — have little to no experience of bowling on Australian soil at this level. It will not be easy for them to bowl at the big hitters from Australia, England, or New Zealand.
Earlier in the evening, the Indian batters had struggled on a slow pitch. Once the tremendously gifted Shafali Varma fell in the first over, the innings had to be resurrected by Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues, Harmanpreet Kaur, and Sharma, who emerged as the top four scorers of the innings.
They pushed India Women to 130/8, but the question stays unanswered. Who, among the support cast, will emerge as certainties in the starting XI when the T20 World Cup gets underway? Even if Varma fits in at the top — she deserves to play the entire series — who will be the ones to go after the bowling in the death overs?
With Mandhana, Rodrigues, and Kaur all set to bat in the top four, there are gaping holes in numbers five to seven (Sharma is more of an accumulator). Veda Krishnamurthy can demolish any attack on her day, but she has been inconsistent for too long.
Perhaps Anuja Patil will have to be fitted in as a batting all-rounder. Perhaps Taniya Bhatia may be moved up the order for the slog. But the decision needs to be made at the earliest, for there are only five months and about a dozen T20Is left before the T20 World Cup, and India are yet to strike a balance and zero in on an XI.
To their credit, they have experimented — and will continue to do so — but there is precious little you can do given the scheduling. In 2019, for example, India played three T20Is in February (in New Zealand) and three in March (against England at home); they lost all 6 but had not played since.
The win at Surat might have been uplifting, but the questions remain. Too little time is left to find a seamer who can run through or a middle order that can explode in the death overs.
One must remember that South Africa were without the services of three key players. Not only have van Niekerk, Kapp, and Tryon been outstanding in the format, they all perform two roles.
That, combined with a pitch that is not quite what lies in store in Australia, was probably not ideal preparation for the big tournament. Time is running out.
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