India Women needed 41 in 35 balls at one point in the Tri-Nation Series final. They had seven wickets in hand. Smriti Mandhana was toying with the Australian bowling, while Harmanpreet Kaur held the fort at the other, albeit without accelerating much. Of course, she did not need to, what with the net run rate under control and Mandhana picking up boundaries at will at the other end.
India had two choices at that point. They could have continued to attack, bringing the asking rate below five before playing defensively. Alternately, they could have taken things slowly, keeping wickets in hand, not taking risks unless needed to.
Mandhana (66 in 37 balls) opted for the former. Given the way she was batting, it was also the smarter of the two options. She holed out to deep mid-wicket off Megan Schutt. It would not have mattered for most of the big teams, for Nos 6 and 7 would have played foil to Kaur and take them closer to victory.
Not India. They were bowled out 34 balls later, for 29 more runs – a margin that flatters them, for eight of these runs came from two boundaries by Taniya Bhatia when all was over.
Contrast this with Australia’s innings. They were 121/5 in the 18th over. Just like Mandhana, Beth Mooney had been around, with a 54-ball 71 not out. Unlike Mandhana, however, she had the luxury of having a Rachael Haynes batting at No 7. With a 7-ball 18, Haynes took Australia to 155/6.
Mandhana struck at 178. Mooney, at 131. Even if one takes Haynes’ onslaught away, Ashleigh Gardner and Meg Lanning scored 26 apiece at brisk pace. None of Mandhana’s teammates made it to 20. Of the four who got into double figures, three struck at below 90.
This has been a problem for the Indians in this format. And going into the T20 World Cup, nothing seems to have changed.
Here is how India’s top seven have done in the tournament, and in the year before the tournament:
Mandhana was in outstanding form throughout the tournament, her 216 runs being the most across teams. Put a 20-ball cut-off, and Shafali Verma and Mandhana occupied second and third places in terms of strike rate.
Additionally, Mandhana, Verma and Kaur were three of six batters to have scored over 100 runs, while Jemimah Rodrigues finished at ninth place.
Verma, as per the table above, lived up to her reputation as an uninhibited hitter. Do note how, both in 2019 and here, she has a hit a boundary every 4.5 balls. Rodrigues, too, increased her strike rate.
The Big Four are not a problem for India. Between them they scored at 120 in the tournament (against the top two sides in the world, remember), more than the 115 they had done in 2019.
The problem lies with the others in the top seven. In 20-over cricket, one would expect them to score rapidly, for they often have too few balls to negotiate with. And that is where India have stuttered almost every time, scoring at roughly the same pace (around 85) in the death overs.
A boundary every 16 balls (in the tournament) cannot amount to a big team total unless every single one of the Big Four delivers. It is not a coincidence that both India’s wins have come in matches where all four got runs. While the performance of one person (out of seven) cannot consistently alter the course of matches, that of four can.
All three defeats have involved exposure of the middle-order, No 5 and below. One may get away with that against some sides, but Australia or England (or New Zealand) will always expose these chinks.
Unfortunately, it is too close to the tournament to make amends. Attempts to replace Veda Krishnamurthy for Harleen Deol, and later, Richa Ghosh, came too late. The teenaged Ghosh, a batter of tremendous potential, could have done with a match or two under her belt instead of debuting in the final, though, to be fair, she had picked up an injury over the first weekend.
What happened to Kaur?
This brings us to the point of Kaur, who has, of late, not been scoring at a rate worthy of her tremendous abilities. Indeed, that hundred against New Zealand in T20 World Cup 2018 was the last time she crossed fifty – though this phase includes three outstanding forties, against Australia (in the same tournament), South Africa, and England (here).
Unfortunately, it is not about big scores either. There is no denying that her strike rate has taken a toll. Kaur is renowned for accelerating once she gets her eye in, but given the fact that she bats fourth in a line-up of four, no more, no less, world-class batters, she is almost always under pressure to ensure there is no collapse as well as score quickly. It is never an easy task.
Her cumulative strike rate since 2018 tells the story.
It is, however, difficult to point out whether her role has played a toll on her performance, but the dip is clearly evident. Combine that with the underperforming 5-7, and India do have a problem on their hands.
Rajeshwari’s rise, and more
India played the tournament without the injured Poonam Yadav (though she stayed on with the team, she did not play), while Pooja Vastrakar picked up an injury in the first match. Stepping in for her, Arundhati Reddy finished as India’s most expensive bowler of the tournament (with a 3-over cut-off).
That India will go into the T20 World Cup with three spinners is evident. Poonam will play the warm-up matches, but if she is not fit, they have to field three finger-spinners (four, if one includes Kaur), as they had to do here. As the only experienced seamer, Shikha Pandey had a lot of burden to bear, but she carried on gamely throughout the tournament, but who will be the second seamer?
Deepti Sharma may be too slow a batter to fit into the middle-order, but there is little doubt that she walks into the side as a bowler alone. On the other hand, Radha Yadav was not at her best here, but given how she had done throughout 2019, neither her class nor form can be questioned.
That brings us to Rajeshwari Gayakwad. Despite her class, Gayakwad had struggled to cement in a place in the most contested segment of the limited-overs sides – finger spin. Time and again has she been left out in favour of bowlers who have preferred a quicker, flatter trajectory – Ekta Bisht, for example.
Gayakwad had played just two T20Is in almost two years before the tournament, one of them against Malaysia Women. One must credit the team management for asking a slow bowler, relying on flight, making a comeback to bowl in the Powerplay overs to Alyssa Healy and Beth Mooney, to Amy Jones and Danni Wyatt.
But then, Gayakwad had a fantastic outing in the Women’s Senior T20 Challenger Trophy. Often opening bowling, she finished with eight wickets in the tournament (the most) while going for 5.15 an over (the second best with a six-over cut-off).
Gayakwad continued with her form in the Tri-Nation tournament. Her 10 wickets were at least three more than anyone else’s, while her economy rate (6.26) is the best among Indians and the fifth-best across teams.
Her performance will make things difficult for the team management once Poonam returns – one hopes she does – for India will have to leave out one of their finger-spinners, given that going with all four spinners is probably too far-fetched on Australian pitches. Remember, if Vastrakar is fit (like Poonam, she will also play the warm-up matches), she will be a near-certainty given her ability to play quick cameos in the death overs.
In other words, the problem with India’s bowling, at this point, is to figure out which spinner to leave out. The problem with batting, as demonstrated above, is graver. With less than two weeks to go before the tournament, the scenario is not ideal for India Women.
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