Just before the afternoon’s 29th over, a great dust cloud stormed across the ground, riding on the crosswind that had picked. The next ball, bowled to Harmanpreet Kaur, was a rib-high full toss. The Indian helped the no-ball to the boundary, their first in 30 balls. The spectators, approximately 5000 of them, were revived.
Surely, on some minds was another no-ball, another free hit.
In the semi-final of the World Cup 2017, a free hit in the 27th over had sparked the best innings in ODI history. Harmanpreet was on 40 off 60 balls when Kristen Beams lost control of one, landing it on another pitch altogether. Harmanpreet hit the free hit for six, then struck a four to end the over and get to her half-century. She scored her next 50 runs off just 37 balls to get to her 100, finishing with that iconic score of 171* off 115 balls, that took India into the World Cup final.
So on Thursday, the Reliance Stadium stood bated, hoping for another blitzkrieg that would surmount Australia’s mountainous score of 287. No such blitz came, only a whimper of thunder. Harmanpreet smashed one boundary off leg-spinner Amanda Wellington, but was dismissed four balls later by the same bowler for 17. And when Veda Krishnamurthy became Wellington’s second victim, India’s realistic hopes of chasing down the target walked back to the dressing room along with her.
But that was not where the match was lost.
Bowling missed Jhulan
Perhaps it was in the Indian bowling, which Mithali Raj repeatedly labelled undisciplined. The Indians fast bowlers, unlike the last game, erred on the fuller side to the Australians, not shorter. The problem was that they regularly erred once an over, undoing the pressure the other five balls created.
The spinners too, pushed the ball further up, something coach Tushar Arothe stressed on in training before the match. But when they did drop short, Australia very rarely missed out. Australia put on two fifty partnerships to begin with, their fifth consecutive in the series, all featuring Nicole Bolton, who made 84. India sorely missed the consistency of Jhulan Goswami.
It’s not as if the bowlers did not create chances, just that those chances weren’t taken. Bolton, who enjoyed a lifeline in the first ODI on her way to a century, benefitted from two on Thursday, one on 22, another on 41. When India did finally take back-to-back-to-back wickets, Australia were at 144 for 4. But a 96-run stand from Ellyse Perry and Beth Mooney propped them up again. Perry, who finished with 70*, was dropped on 37 by Ekta Bisht off her own bowling.
Batting more to blame
But on a wicket that the Australian batswomen wouldn’t mind wrapping up and taking home, the Indian batswomen must take a good look at their showing. Smriti Mandhana faced an extra net session of off-spin and inswing before the match, and the results showed, as she smashed offie Ashleigh Gardener for 21 runs in the 16 she faced. While she clearly had a plan in place for Gardener, none of the batswomen seemed to know how to tackle Megan Schutt.
Schutt bowled two maidens and four more dots before the first runs were scored off her, and that too was a dropped catch of Punam Raut on one. That chance seemed to send Raut into a cave, whereupon she got lost there. As Mandhana (67 off 53) attacked from the other end, she played out Schutt’s third maiden, taking 40 balls to get into double figures. In a game with the asking rate over six, it was like watching a hand-wound toy car try to keep up in a Formula One race. Schutt finished with and economy of 2.4, having been allowed to set terms.
“If you’re chasing a big score, you have to maintain the run rate, otherwise there’s no sense chasing," said Raj after the game. “Now cricket is evolving, we need to match up, we can’t play old school, or chase 280 in the end, that doesn’t happen every match.” Raut made old school look positively hip, and it will be a surprise if she keeps her spot in the third ODI.
The lack of preparation for such a bowler must be scrutinised. In the nets, the Indian batswomen have been facing male net bowlers who bowl as quick or quicker than the fastest female players from both sides. Even India’s frontline pacers are much quicker than Schutt’s languid inswingers. The batswomen have had little preparation in delaying their downswings, and it is showing.
Rotation? What rotation?
More glaring was the inability of the openers to take runs off good balls. Neither of them have shown the ability to drop-and-run in this series. Raut seemed to be batting on quicksand, but even Mandhana, who flew to 51 off 41 balls, had 42 of those runs in boundaries. Consequently, the Australian fielders could all sit on the 25-yard circle.
“Without giving too much away," began Perry when asked about this, “the ball is almost gliding on to the middle and that’s probably why we haven’t noticed much soft hands being played. People are hitting it hard, so you could look to give yourself a bit more time.” The Indian batswomen may not have realised this, but their opponents are taking the punch out of their strokes.
If Raj’s captaincy and field placing was impressive, it was outdone by Meg Lanning’s. With the left-handed Deepti Sharma and Harmanpreet at the crease, Lanning held her spinners back. Overs 25 to 31 were bowled by the seamers, which kept Harmanpreet quiet, and did not allow Deepti a look at the leg-spinner, presumably the reason she batted at No 3 in the first place.
Only 27 runs came in that phase, in which Raj was also bounced out, and just one boundary scored (that too off that no-ball), again highlighting India’s lack of planning against pace. This took the required run-rate from 6.3 to 7.3, so when Wellington returned, Harmanpreet had no option but to be ultra-aggressive, drawing the top edge.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was the team’s decision to bowl first on a batting-friendly surface. “I felt there was a bit of moisture in the wicket," said Raj. “The fast bowlers got some movement in the first few overs.” But the movement on show was in the air, not off the pitch.
After Australia had chased 200 in 32.1 overs in the first ODI, perhaps the Indians were unsure of how much was enough, and preferred to let the Aussies stretch themselves, hoping that it would increase their chances of getting them out. A defensive mindset rarely beats the most aggressive team in the world.
At the end of the game, another dust cloud swirled around the ground, this one kicked up by the noisy crowd as they left the ground. Raj, in the post-match presentation, was almost apologetic as she invited them back to support women’s cricket in the next game, which is on a Sunday. “It’s not that bad," she said with a sorry smile.
India will need to show it.