It has been almost eight months since 8 March, when Australia had thrashed India in the final of the T20 World Cup. The Indian women have not played competitive cricket in this format. And yet, barring a few exceptions, the cricketers looked prepared. Not many eyebrows would have been raised had they looked rusty after a long hiatus.
But they did not. Most of the regulars of the international T20 side looked in decent touch. Poonam Yadav tossed the ball up, Harmanpreet Kaur hit an enormous six, Shikha Pandey and Ekta Bisht were tidy, Shafali Verma brought the usual surge of adrenaline among viewers, and Sushma Verma was clinical enough to put pressure on Taniya Bhatia for the wicketkeeper’s role. Mithali Raj suffered a painstaking crawl, but as she pointed out herself after the match, she has not played competitive 20-over cricket in about 18 months.
An inexplicable clash with the WBBL meant that some of the big international names would not be available for the tournament. The Australians, having won the World T20, would have been top draw. While there was no Megan Schutt vs Meg Lanning on display, some of the overseas big guns – Chamari Athapaththu, Jahanara Alam, and Sune Luus – demonstrated their class.
BCCI had not marketed the tournament aggressively, but some good news came through just ahead of the tournament. In Jio, Women’s T20 Challenge found a sponsor, following which BCCI Treasurer Arun Dhumal announced that the tournament is now financially independent.
This is excellent news, for going forward the tournament can be hosted as a separate event without having to coincide with the IPL Playoffs – just like the Women’s T20 World Cup had managed to break away from its male counterparts two years ago.
While that is an improvement, it cannot be denied that the tournament needs to expanded. Three teams and four matches – after a hiatus that lasted months – are hardly the level of exposure the cricketers deserve. An expansion is in order, something that may be achieved with the now-achieved financial independence.
But let us return to the tournament opener, an intense contest that went down to the penultimate ball. The Supernovas held the upper hand when Velocity needed 50 in 30 balls, but Verma and Luus saw Velocity through.
A target of 127 may seem easy, but the pitch at Sharjah, after over a month’s cricket, has finally slowed down. It is never easy to take on world-class spinners like Shashikala Siriwardene and the two Yadavs – Poonam and Radha – under these conditions, but Luus and Verma were left with little option.
Poonam, with her lack of pace and low release point, was particularly a major threat. She has beaten some of the best in the world in flight, and is particularly difficult to hit against the turn. The situation did not look good for Verma, who loves hitting against the turn over mid-wicket.
But she went for it. She came down the pitch and smartly chose the zone over mid-on (and not mid-wicket), a relatively safer shot, and got her timing right. It was a brave, but calculated, attempt that came off.
Luus, more confident while sweeping, slog swept Poonam in the same over for six. They continued in their own approaches – Verma coming down the pitch, Luus sweeping both with power and precision – and saw Velocity home just when – to quote Kaur – dew started to emerge as a factor.
But Velocity had no reason to get themselves into a corner that tight. Danni Wyatt fell early, but Verma took on from exactly where she had left things in the T20 World Cup, hitting Ayabonga Khaka for three fours on the trot before falling in the same over. The next 10 overs fetched Velocity just 48, but that had to do with Raj’s struggle.
Velocity were not the only side having to battle against the slow pitch in the evening. At Kaur’s arrival, Supernovas were 42/2 in the eighth over. Then Athapaththu and Kaur hit two sixes each. While Athapaththu’s sixes came off outrageous strokes, Kaur’s first six deserves particular mention.
It is never easy to generate enough power without stepping out against a slow bowler on a very slow pitch – unless, of course, you are Kaur. She waited for Luus’ delivery till it was in her hitting zone, then unleashed a brutal blow to clear the mid-wicket boundary.
It is likely, however, that the shot, however, will be more of an exception than the norm – despite the presence of some of the hardest hitters. Given the pace of the pitch, spinners are set to rule the tournament, and it will take nimble footwork to counterattack against them.
The spinners have mostly ruled the first match, something that kept the Trailblazers spinners interested, for in Sophie Ecclestone, Deepti Sharma, and Rajeshwari Gayakwad, they have arguably the strongest of the three spin-bowling units of the tournament.
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