There are no hoardings all around the city, despite the cricket promising to be of high quality, and the gate entry declared to be free. There is the underdog tag in the Indian camp, despite the return of the spearhead of their bowling. And there is one extra team, who just happen to be the same opposition that denied India a World Cup eight months ago.
These are just three ways in which the upcoming T20I tri-series starting on 22 March is different from the recent India-Australia ODIs, and yet, the predicted result is the same: An Australian win. While this tournament might offer more than that, it could very easily come down to a race for second place, at least until the final. And yet these next 10 days are all about who comes first.
England are World Champions. India are runners-up. Australia, uncommonly, hold no ICC trophy, but have just displaced England at the top of the ICC rankings. None of this really tells us who the best team in the world is right now, or who will be the team to beat at the WT20 later this year. But this tournament might.
“It’s a huge incentive”, said Australian coach Matthew Mott soon after the team arrived in India. “With these first three ODIs, and then the tri-series, we can see where we are at. This series will have a big impact in where we see ourselves leading up to the T20 World Cup.”
Here’s a look at how the three teams shape up.
There was a moment after the Indian team’s nets at the Brabourne stadium, when Jhulan Goswami and Smriti Mandhana did sprints. At the finish line, the gap between the two of them was almost as significant as the 14 years between their ages, and yet this team is much richer for Goswami. She bowled with pace and bounce in the nets, and the bruised heel that kept her out of the previous two series was clearly confined to the past tense. But besides the consistency and experience, Goswami can lift the spirits of a squad that had just received a chastening in the ODIs from the Australians.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Indian squad is the fact that four pace bowlers have been picked, with the dibbly-dobbly bowling of Rumeli Dhar having been retained. Rarely has an Indian team had so many seam options, that too at home, but coach Tushar Arothe hinted before the ODI series that India might look to use this permutation more often. “You must have seen in South Africa we went in with three fast bowlers. That’s a bit unusual for the Indian side. But this is what we did and we were successful," he said.
But the focus will be fully on the batting, which disappointed in Vadodara. Besides Mandhana and No 9 Pooja Vastrakar, no other player passed 50 runs in an innings. Mithali Raj spoke about grooming Vastrakar into a bowling all-rounder, and it will be interesting to see if they give her a pinch-hitting role at the top of the order, or if Raj continues to open. Her record there is certainly enviable, with five half-centuries in the last six innings. It will be interesting to see how her strike rate matches up with the openers from the other teams.
England have three possible debutants in their squad, with two of those likely to make the starting XI, according to coach Marc Robinson. Two of them lost no time in making an impression in the two warm-up games — Bryony Smith smoked an even 50 at the top of the order in the first, and left-arm seamer Katie George took a hat-trick in the second. With no real consequence of losing these games, and with pitches in the WT20 likely to be similar to Indian wickets, Robinson will be viewing this tour as a science experiment, to find the right alignment of nucleotides in the DNA of his team.
Still, England look a less certain side without Katherine Brunt and Sarah Taylor, who helped them beat Australia 2-1 in the T20I leg of the Women’s Ashes last year. There were some injury concerns for Anya Shrubsole, who hurt her shoulder in the second warm-up game. And Danni Wyatt will need to prove that the form with which she struck England’s first T20I hundred in her last game still holds.
As if Australia didn’t bat deep enough already, they have called in two more all-rounders into the T20 squad. Having been just one win away from claiming the No 1 spot in the Ashes, Australia failed to win one of the last two T20Is, conceding the series but retaining the Ashes by virtue of a draw. “We were disappointed we weren’t able to finish them (England) off in the Ashes." said Mott. After having avenged that famous semi-final defeat against India, Australia will now be keen on the second half of their payback.
Beth Mooney, who batted in T20 mode (90 runs, 59 balls, two innings) in the middle order in the ODIs, will most likely return to the opening slot alongside Alyssa Healy. Captain Meg Lanning snacked on only 75 runs in three innings in Vadodara, and will be hungry for something more substantial. And don’t be surprised if Australia start with different spinners against the two teams, off spin against India and left-arm orthodox against England.
All three teams have already played one series each with the new playing conditions that allow only four fielders outside the circle after the powerplay, and these series have seen high scores. The last time England and Australia faced each other, two players scored T20I hundreds. And India’s recent T20I series against South Africa saw them score more than 160 on two out of four occasions.
The practice wickets at the Brabourne didn’t seem to offer much turn, so this series is likely to be another run-festival, but one with no audience. Unlike in Vadodara, where every rickshaw driver knew what was happening, this series seems lost in Mumbai, especially with little effort being put in to locally publicise the matches. Ready the complaints about cricket being televised but the stands being empty.
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