Inexperience, tactical issues and, in hindsight, a selection blunder saw India crash out in the semi-final of the 2018 ICC Women’s World Twenty20 against England at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua on Thursday.
At the start of the tournament, there was much debate about where Mithali Raj should bat in the order. At first, Ramesh Powar, head coach of the Indian team, had said he was happy with Raj’s role at the top of the order, but in the team’s opening match, she was not even required to bat as India amassed 194 for 5 against New Zealand. Harmanpreet Kaur defended the tactic, saying India wanted to extend their batting line-up with the 35-year-old coming lower down the order, but in the next two games, she scored half centuries while opening the batting. It seemed Raj had become the designated floater— someone who would be able to steady the ship, while also playing an attacking style later on.
“Mithali is a key player and we have to use her accordingly,” said Kaur after the team’s win over Pakistan.
Having missed out in the match against Australia because she was “unwell”, Raj was expected to walk straight back into the Indian XI for their semi-final against England. After all, it is the big players who must step up in high pressure games. In knockout stages it is experience that often takes you through, and Raj was the most experienced player India had.
However, come the semi-final on Thursday, India, quite surprisingly, chose to leave the veteran out of the XI, in order to maintain a “winning combination”. Having seen the way the pitch played in the first match of the day, and how important Meg Lanning’s sedate 39-ball 31 was, that was India’s first mistake. If anything, the first semi-final between Australia and West Indies had made it clear that the pitch in Antigua was not for free-flowing stroke-play, or mindless bludgeoning down the ground; if one were to accumulate runs, they would need to be smart.
“We did really well against Australia, and that is the reason we just wanted to go with the same combination,” explained Kaur. “She (Raj) opens. We need someone after Smriti and me who can bat for us. Sometimes you click, sometimes it doesn't click.”
Most people think of T20 cricket as a game of fours and sixes. We often pick the biggest hitters and the fastest scorers, often ignoring the nudgers and nurdlers. That is probably why India chose a young side— they favoured raw talent over experience.
India’s approach with the bat through the tournament has been very attacking. The batswomen have been constantly in search of runs, not afraid to take the aerial route and willing to take a calculated risk to make sure the team is ahead of the game.
Youth has been India’s calling card. It has been their biggest strength but also a major weakness that England finally managed to expose. The inexperience in the lower middle-order was a big worry going into the tournament. Veda Krishnamurthy has been terribly inconsistent for quite a while now, Deepti Sharma is trying to reinvent herself as a T20I batswoman, and Hemalatha Dayalan only made her debut in this tournament. The bowlers, although talented with the bat, were untested at international level, and their inability to cope with or add any real value to the batting unit showed through the event. In their last group game against Australia India lost 5 for 36 and in the semi-final against England they suffered an even worse collapse of 8 for 23.
Whether Raj’s presence would have really made a difference or not is debatable, but in a knockout game, when the pressure is on, it is the calm heads that come out on top. Raj is the calmest and most determined one of all. In her last T20 World Cup, there is no way she would have folded meekly just because the conditions were tough.
India dropping Raj may have been a ‘bold statement’ as some liked to call it, but in the semi-final of a world tournament, it may not have been the smartest thing to do. In T20Is in 2018, she has scored 575 runs in 19 innings at an average of 35.93 and a strike rate of 105.89. Not the most staggering numbers, but in the conditions on show in Antigua, Raj would have probably been India’s best bet.
It was not even as if she was out of form for India to drop her. Having collected twin fifties against Pakistan and Ireland, she had made her mark on the tournament and looked in great touch. She scored 107 runs in two innings at a strike rate of 103.
Raj’s ability to score on any type of surface and in different areas of the ground sets her apart. She may not be the biggest striker of the ball, or the fastest scorer with the bat, but she knows how to score tough runs, and that is what India needed in a pressure game— someone to hold their own while the rest went berserk.
In many ways, her absence put a bit more pressure on Mandhana at the top of the order. The left-hander’s contributions became more vital for India to put up a good score, but that also meant that taking risks came with consequences.
While Mandhana looked like she was batting on a different strip, everyone else struggled to find their timing. Raj is an expert in such conditions. Unlike the rest of the Indian line-up who enjoy jumping on to the front foot and hitting straight down the ground, Raj can hang on the back foot and score square of the wicket as well— a tactic England used well against India’s spinners.
More than the batting collapse, it was India’s inability to adapt with the ball that really cost them. In conditions that suited their slow bowlers, they resorted to negative tactics— attempting to frustrate England into gifting their wickets, rather than trying to attack the stumps. When the strategy of trying to keep the scoring to one side of the ground failed, they failed to come up with a new plan, stubbornly sticking to the same thing as Natalie Sciver and Amy Jones made merry, collecting half-centuries as they headlined England’s eight-wicket win.
Once England got on top of the Indian spinners, there was no turning back. Poonam Yadav, Radha Yadav, Deepti and Anuja Patil were unable to come up with ways to adjust their tactics. They kept floating the ball up slow and outside of stump, giving Natalie Sciver and Amy Jones enough time to go deep into the crease and hammer them through cover point or mid wicket. Not once did the Indian bowlers try to vary their pace or change their point of delivery— they stayed behind the bowling crease, lobbing the ball up.
While Kaur has said that she is proud of the way India played through the tournament, part of her will certainly wonder whether she made an error in judgement. India may be trying to groom and create a young group of exciting players, but this World Cup presented them with a real chance to pull off something special.
With all the other contenders not exactly playing at their best, India really set the cat amongst the pigeons with their aggressive intent. They dominated every contest they were in, never giving the opposition a sniff. Both Australia and New Zealand suffered their wrath, and they even downed South Africa and West Indies during their warm ups. They came into the semi-finals as the team to beat— they were new, exciting and a much improved unit.
All these years, India have been known to be conservative with the bat— unwilling to attempt anything even slightly adventurous. That, however, has changed. The batswomen are more aggressive than they have ever been before— maybe even a bit too aggressive. It is their bowlers, and their tactics that really let them down this time around. While the negative strategy worked while defending big scores, it clearly didn’t look to be the right choice on Thursday. What was most disappointing was India’s inability to adapt— something England showed they were able to do.
As Kaur said, one bad game doesn’t make the Indian team a bad unit. There is so much good that has come of their campaign, but once again it has been a case of ‘what if’?
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While Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur will lead the ODI and T20I teams respectively, wicketkeeper Tanya Bhatia has also been dropped from the squads
Mithali Raj — with 687 points — remained at 9th to be the second Indian batswoman in the top 10. Mandhana has 732 points.