Few important questions pop up every time India Women play a Twenty20 International series at home. Why are the matches scheduled so early in the morning, and not at a time convenient for players, crowd and television audience? It is impossible to believe that India have played only two T20Is under floodlights in a bilateral series at home. Both were in Visakhapatnam during the series against Australia in March 2012. Only Mithali Raj, Ekta Bisht and Veda Krishnamurthy from that team are a part of the current squad for the three T20Is against England at the Barsapara Cricket in Guwahati that start on Monday (4 March).
Thankfully, after both the team managements put in a formal request, the start timing of the T20Is were shifted to 11 am instead of 10 am. But how difficult it would have been for the Board of Control of Cricket in India to have 5 pm starts, which would have been a lovely entertainment option for families in Guwahati?
Even if the entry is free, it will difficult to expect the service class to take leave on Monday and Thursday (7 March when the second T20I is scheduled) to turn up to watch the girls in action. With a little better planning, the board could have had at least two of the three T20Is on weekends. Right now it’s only one game on a Saturday (9 March). At least the advantage of hosting this series in a tier-two city like Guwahati is the fact that Assam Cricket Association is keen to make an impression.
“We could have earned some revenue by selling tickets but our main agenda is to popularise women’s cricket,” Devajit Saikia, the ACA secretary, said at a press conference. “I think these three matches will help a lot to motivating the young girls to play the game.”
The intent is right and if it is backed by appropriate action then it won’t be surprising to expect a good crowd like it was for the One-Day Internationals against Australia in Baroda last year. A decent turnout could be a lesson for BCCI to take women’s cricket to smaller centres regularly.
All these thoughts, though, will be far away from the mind of Mandhana who is slated to make her international captaincy debut in the absence of an injured Harmanpreet Kaur. Mandhana will be India’s fifth captain in the format. At 22 years and 229 days, she will be India’s third youngest captain behind Mithali and Diana Edulji, who were both 21 years old when they first led in ODIs.
The significance of the occasion is not lost on anyone. India impressed in the league stages of the World T20 last year, but the semifinal loss against England where they committed a tactical error by not playing Mithali and the defeat against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup final before that haven’t been forgotten. Also the 0-3 sweep in New Zealand this year when at least two matches were under control exposed many chinks in the armour.
If Mandhana, who is quite popular for her people-management skills, can display enough tactical nuance through the course of these three games then it could lead to her replacing Kaur at the helm. With the T20 World Cup in Australia less than a year away, that would be a massive call.
While Mandhana’s captaincy skills will be under scrutiny, the series is also a chance for India’s batting bench strength to be tested. Harleen Deol was really attractive to watch during the Challenger Trophy, and that earned her a place in the ODI series against England which India won 2-1.
She carried drinks in two matches, but would have learnt a lot by watching Mandhana and Mithali bat and would be keen to implement those lessons in the T20Is where she is expected to open the innings in place of Priya Punia, who was dropped after a poor tour of New Zealand.
The obvious question is whether the selectors should have persisted with Punia for at least one home series before giving her the axe, but the truth is that there is an element of desperation to get the team balance right ahead of the multi-nation event in Australia.
Kaur’s injury opens another door for Veda. Her inconsistency over the years has become a big issue. Lack of quality talent pool in the domestic circuit had worked in Veda’s favour in the past, but the selectors dropped her after an ordinary World T20. She has hit reasonable form in the domestic games for Railways, and has a chance to take the momentum forward. An in-form Veda always takes care of the Indian team’s composition.
Focus will also be on Komal Zanzad. She impressed in the warm-up game against England with three big wickets and is the only bowler with a nine-for in recorded Women’s List A history. If she makes her debut she will be the first-ever left-arm seamer to play for India. Also, Shikha Pandey has a chance to reclaim her place as the leader of the pace attack after taking eight wickets in the ODI series. The conditions in Guwahati, especially if India bowl first, could assist her.
One of the talking points during the ODI series was the way Heather Knight, Natalie Sciver and Danielle Wyatt handled the Indian spinners by executing the sweep shot well. It has to be seen if Poonam Yadav and the rest of the spinners have come up with a different plan because that could be the deciding factor in all the games.
England obviously have been hampered by injuries, but they showed great character by winning the third ODI by two wickets. They will carry a lot of confidence in the way they went about things in that game, and the fact that they chased down 199 against India in a T20I in Mumbai last year through Wyatt’s 64-ball 124 must be fresh in their memory.
On paper England have always been a stronger T20I side than India, and unless the conditions really affect them they would be fully confident to keep the tag alive.