Familiarity plays a key role in sport. Familiarity with conditions, with the opposition players — their strengths and weaknesses — and their go-to tactics gives teams an edge. The second semi-final of the 2018 ICC Women’s World Twenty20 at the Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Ground in Antigua will be between two teams that know each other quite well: India and England.
Since June last year, England and India have met in five ODIs and two T20Is and have played each other both home and away. England got the better of India in the 2017 World Cup final at Lord’s, but India fought back, sealing the ODI series at home earlier this year, 2-1. The two T20Is have been shared, with Danielle Wyatt’s incredible 124 in Mumbai, being the standout of those encounters.
England are very familiar with their foe. They have formulated plans and know what India have up their sleeve. They have seen it before, countered it well and will not be too worried going into the game.
England’s knowledge of the Indian players extends beyond the international matches they have played. The likes of Anya Shrubsole and Heather Knight have spent a month with a prolific Smriti Mandhana during the Women’s Super League.
“They (international players) obviously get a better look at you, and how you play internationally, and vice-versa you get a chance to work them out and how they go about things,” Knight told ICC during the Women’s Super League earlier this year. “You also get a closer look at their game and how you are going to play against them and get them out. Me and Anya sort of stood at the back of the nets, trying to work out how we are going to bowl to Smriti at the World Cup.”
Knight will be hoping England have got their plans in place, because Mandhana seems to have finally hit her stride after a scratchy start to the tournament. Against Australia, the left-hander went out all guns blazing — her terrific knock headlining India’s 48-run win in their last group match.
Both teams have taken contrasting routes to the knockout stage.
For India, it was ‘Harmonster’ who set the tone for her team’s campaign with arguably the best innings played in a T20 World Cup, when she became the first Indian woman to score a T20I century. Her knock saw India register a comfortable 34-run win over New Zealand in their first game of the tournament. Against Pakistan, Mithali Raj’s masterclass took India to a commanding seven-wicket win, while Ireland bore the wrath of a team that was on a roll, going down by 52 runs. Australia were meant to be the team’s biggest test, and with Raj missing out, Mandhana stroked herself into scintillating form with a 55-ball 83 — her highest score in T20Is. Her contribution at the top of the order was vital in propelling India to a total of 168 and headlined their victory over Australia. The win meant India finished atop Group B and, qualified for the knockout stage of the tournament for the first time since 2010.
England, on the other hand, have stuttered and stumbled their way through their campaign. They started with a washout against Sri Lanka, a hard-earned win against Bangladesh, a walloping of South Africa and then a tight, last-over loss against West Indies. They finished second in their group to book a date with India in Antigua.
Through the course of the tournament, the spinners have been India’s greatest strength — bowling slow and on one side of the wicket to dry up the runs and frustrate the batters into trying something different. Their plans have revolved around Poonam Yadav, the leg-spinner, who is the team’s most experienced bowler after Ekta Bisht, who has not played a single game. She brings a sense of calm and control to an attack which is otherwise wet behind the ears. In the last year, Poonam has been the most successful T20I bowler, taking 35 wickets in 24 matches at an average of 14.08 and economy rate of 5.73. In the World T20 itself, she has taken eight wickets in four matches. She loops the ball well above the batswoman's eye-line, and bowls so slow that they have to create all the pace.
She is well supported by Deepti Sharma, Radha Yadav, Hemalatha Dayalan and Kaur herself. Sharma, the off-spinner, seems to be coming into her own, taking more responsibility with the ball, and picking up vital wickets through the tournament. Hemalatha, who played a crucial role in the first match, taking three wickets, has not had much to do with the ball since, with Kaur stepping up to work as India’s fifth bowler.
With the bat, as has been happening through their time in the Caribbean, Mandhana and Kaur will hold all the cards. India will be hoping that Raj, who was unwell for the previous game, will be fit enough to play. Her experience and calmness at the crease will certainly give India a lot of confidence in such a high-pressure game.
India’s inexperienced lower-middle order is their biggest worry. Having been unable to capitalise on a wonderful start against Australia, they will be slightly low on confidence going into the semi-final. It is possible that Anuja Patil could step in to shore up the middle order — she has a strong temperament and has often proved to be a big match player. In the match against Australia, Patil picked up three wickets to stake her claim to a place in the XI.
For England, Shrubsole has been incredible with the ball through the tournament. Alongside Natalie Sciver — with whom she has shared the new Kookaburra — she has stepped up in the absence of Katherine Brunt. They have consistently provided England with early breakthroughs, exposing the opposition middle order rather early in the innings. Kirstie Gordon and Sophie Ecclestone, the left-arm spinners, have also added value to the attack— enough to even keep Danielle Hazell, the experienced off-spinner, out of the line-up.
Their batting order, however, is yet to fire as a unit. Tammy Beaumont and Wyatt got England off to a rapid start against South Africa, but they have failed to make a mark on the tournament. Amy Jones, who has been wonderful behind the stumps, has also shown glimpses of her ability with the bat. Most impressive though, has been Sophia Dunkley, the right-hand lower order batter, who scored a wonderful 35 against West Indies, and shared a 58-run stand with Shrubsole. With her side in a mess, Dunkley showed the ability to soak up the pressure, stick to her strengths, and a willingness to keep moving the game forward. She seemed to revel under the pressure of the big stage in her very first international innings.
Although England have had to scrap their way through the World Cup, they have shown they have the ability to fight and that is key in big tournaments. As opposed to India, whose big names have stood up in tight situations, England have found different heroes at different turns — and that will hold them in good stead. They will also take confidence in the fact that they have beaten India, and nullified the threat of their spinners only a few months ago. England are a team happy to sweep and reverse sweep — a tactic unused against India during this tournament — so whether India choose to stick to their original plans or not will be interesting to see.
Traditionally, England have always been seen as one of the superpowers in T20I cricket — consistently part of the final four — so their entry into the semi-finals was never a surprise. In recent years, however, they have fallen off the top perch, and look determined to fight their way back to the top. India, on the other hand, have taken the tournament by storm with their new, attacking approach to the game. After years of searching, they have found a formula that works for them, and England will know that Kaur’s team will not fold as meekly as they did six months ago.
There is little to choose between the two teams headed into their knockout match. India will be playing their very first match under lights in this edition of the World Cup. England, on the other hand, not only have the experience of playing under lights in this tournament, but in competitions before as well.
Knockout games are about handling pressure, and so far, India have blown away their oppositions regularly. They have not been put to the test in their entire campaign. They have dominated contests, unlike any previous Indian team. Now it’s about holding their nerve in a big game. Will their inexperience finally tell, or will the Indian juggernaut roll on?