"How much is enough?"
England captain Heather Knight was asked this question after her side chased down 198 with eight balls and seven wickets to spare against India. She simply laughed.
It has been that kind of series, less cricketing contest and more science experiment, testing just how much the membrane of T20I cricket will stretch before it bursts. That score of 198 seemed to be the limit for now; the last two group games saw scores of less than 110 being mustered.
This series has been a rare chance for all teams to meaningfully experiment; it is close enough to the World T20 to matter, and far enough to be treated as a casting session, not dress rehearsal. The three teams went about finding their actors in different ways: England were all calculator and sledgehammer, with results varying from spectacular to spectacularly ordinary. Australia were like a pack of cards being shuffled, all the same talent but in very different places. India though, seemed to be mapping out their path with pen, paper and some polite enquiries, in the era of Google Maps. Like in the ODIs against Australia, it was not the fact that they lost three in a row before notching a consolation; it was the manner in which they went down.
India’s persistence with Mithali Raj as Smriti Mandhana’s opening partner was like Doordarshan’s Sanskrit news segment: classical, but it didn’t get the job done. With other teams going so far as making the best batswomen in the world bat down the order so that they could loot the powerplay, Raj opening the innings was anachronistic.
Even when she scored a half-century and put on a hundred-run stand in the third game, her contribution in the first six overs was 15 off 19 balls. And when she was eventually replaced at the top by Jemimah Rodigues, she walked in at No 3 in the second over at the fall of Mandhana’s wicket. Raj finished as one of two Indians in the top 10 run-getters with a strike rate (89.5) of less than 100. The other, was captain Harmanpreet Kaur, and no stat underlines India’s batting worries more.
Harmanpreet has looked short on confidence in the field and with the bat, despite enjoying a strong tour of South Africa, where she led India to a 3-1 win and averaged 41 at a strike rate of 136. Even on home soil, there was a foreign uncertainty to her shot-making, especially against spin. These factors meant she laboured over getting herself set, dragging down her strike rate, and pushing up the required run rate if India were chasing. While this is the usual way she constructs innings, the certainty that surrounds her after she middles a few has been missing, and the assaults that follow have been uneventful. Her captaincy has been proactive, but the bowlers haven’t shown the consistency to apply pressure.
Just as uplifting was the mellifluence of Mandhana’s bat. Mandhana staked a claim for the Player of the Series award with 208 runs in four innings, three half-centuries. Counting the two fifties she scored in the ODIs, that is now five half-centuries in six innings, which went some way to improving her home record, which was significantly poorer than her away one.
Bowling and fielding
Save for India’s last game, where the pitch offered some grip and turn, this tournament was a trial for the bowlers. India’s spinners picked up nine of the 15 wickets they took in the last game, but Poonam Yadav did show signs of turn, for the better. She should benefit from the pressure of having Devika Vaidya in the team for the three ODIs against England in Nagpur. The fast bowling seemed taller with the return of Jhulan Goswami, and glimpses of support from Pooja Vastrakar. India showed the ability to shut a batting side down when there is some turn, but could not display the consistency to do the same on a flat track. The fielding showed an upward trend from the ODI series; it was not a case of lack of athleticism or poor technique, but a lack of confidence.
With increased interest comes increased scrutiny, and India’s performance in a home series where the host broadcaster has made significant investments will not be forgotten, despite the distractions in the cricket world right now.
India’s female cricketers may be taking home heftier pay-packages, but their communication is more throwback than leap forward. This was India’s second T20I series under the new playing conditions, so novelty should not have been spoken of, yet it was offered among the reasons for the losses. Two players on two different days made it a point to stress that there was no blame being thrown about in the dressing room, and said personal responsibility was being taken by all players.
That was a contrast to the captain’s own statement; In the post match presentation after the third game, when India were knocked out of final contention, Harmanpreet said she needed “fit players” in the team. “We need players who can run all over the ground, we don’t need a player who can just stand in the 30-yard, because as a captain it’s very difficult for me to run everywhere and set the field.”
More disappointing was the fact that Harmanpreet did not appear for any media interactions after those comments, nor did the coach front the press after either this or the ODI series. Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft’s press conferences have shown the amount of respect there is to be gained by being brave and honest, even after something so obviously wrong. They also served as a reminder that the fans are the ultimate stakeholder in the sport, and for their sake, India’s leadership group much imbibe this professionalism as a part of the privilege of representing the country. As Abhinav Bindra said at an awards function, “The sports writer represents the athlete to the fan, but let us not forget, most importantly, represents the fan to the athlete.”