Dead rubbers can often be facile events. They are associated with lowered intensity and in many sports have the feel of an exhibition match, almost. When the result bears no real consequence, it is easy for teams to take their foot off the pedal— experiment with different tactics, give the senior players a rest, or change the line-up to make sure everyone gets a hit before the business end of the tournament.
India’s final Group B match in the 2018 ICC Women’s World Twenty20 at Providence Stadium in Guyana against Australia was effectively a dead rubber with both teams already having qualified for the semi-finals. Neither team, however, treated it as such. True to their word to take the tournament one match at a time, and determined to go through the league phase unbeaten, India registered a resounding 48-run win over the three-time World T20 champions on Saturday (17 November).
Just like their victory over New Zealand in the very first game of the tournament, India’s win against Australia was a statement of intent. In a dead rubber, instead of easing up as they had done against Ireland, India bounded in with energy and enthusiasm, ready to take down the opposition. Smriti Mandhana led the team’s charge with a career best score of 83. Over her 55-ball knock, the left-hander, was at her fluent best, hitting nine fours and three sixes as she took the Australian bowlers to the cleaners. In the company of Harmanpreet Kaur, who smashed a 27-ball 43, she put on 68-runs for the third wicket as India cantered to 167 for 8.
After a rather quiet tournament so far, Mandhana finally found her timing and caressed the ball through the gaps with ease. She played on the bowler’s mind, stepping out and lofting them over the boundary, before hanging back to use the pace of the shorter, faster delivery that came next. Another impressive aspect of her innings was the newly developed and now, often played sweep shot with which she brought up her half century.
In reply, Australia struggled to get a move on early in the absence of Alyssa Healy. The right-hand opener who suffered a mild concussion after she collided with Megan Schutt in the first innings, was advised not to bat, and with her out of the equation, Australia stumbled against India’s spinners. Forced to create the pace, the Australian batters were unable to pick the gaps in the off-side ring and also couldn’t find the boundary on the leg-side. India’s tactic of bowling slow— almost from behind the bowling crease— and way outside off stump had them in a tangle, as they struggled to find their timing. Ellyse Perry aside, none of the Australian batters got the hang of how to tackle the Indian spinners: constantly looking for the big hits rather than focusing on hitting the gaps and rotating the strike.
The Indians executed their plans to perfection— both with the bat and in the field. Having put in rather sloppy performances over the last couple of games, India certainly raised their standards. Veda Krishnamurthy who had dropped a sitter against Pakistan, pouched four catches in the deep; Taniya Bhatia was efficient behind the stumps; Radha Yadav was superb at backward point and off her own bowling; and India, generally, seemed more up and about in the centre. This was a team that looked keen to push their boundaries and keep getting better. This was a team for whom ‘domination’ was more than just a catch-phrase: it was something they genuinely wanted to live and breathe.
Ahead of the tournament, much had been written about India’s young squad— they were inexperienced, untested, exciting, and that they could play with freedom, without the baggage of past failures. With an average age of 24, India was the youngest team in the tournament.
On Saturday, with Mithali Raj having been rested because she was unwell, Kaur was the oldest in the playing XI, at 29. Around her, was a group of 20-somethings and a few teenagers. Around her, was the future of the Indian team, and they had a fresh, new and exciting look about them. Around her, was a team that could learn to dominate in the coming years.
When Mandhana smoked Megan Schutt over her head that future was visible. When Kaur decimated Sophie Molineux through her four over spell, that future was visible. When Deepti Sharma bowled Beth Mooney round her legs, that future was visible and when Radha Yadav sprinted from the bowling crease towards mid-on, to the edge of the inner circle and dived forward to take a spectacular caught and bowled, that future was clearer than ever.
India’s performance against Australia was close to flawless, but as Jemimah Rodrigues said in the post match press conference, “there is always scope for improvement.”
One, the India middle order still looks a little thin. After Kaur was dismissed in the 14th over, India failed to kick on after that, collecting only 50 runs in the last 40 deliveries and losing five wickets. While the young Indian batters showed good intent, and a willingness to swing from the start, they were more wild swipes in desperation, rather than calculated, attacking strokes.
Also, now that Perry has shown how the Indian spinners can be tackled, it will be interesting to see whether India have a plan B in their semi-final. Conditions in Antigua are traditionally not as spinner friendly as Guyana, so it may be that India’s slow bowlers have less to work with.
Through their campaign so far, India were searching for a complete performance, and on Saturday that is what they got. That it came in a game without consequence will not bother anyone. A win over three time World T20 champions, a team that has dominated them in this format, will give India a lot of confidence heading into the semi-finals.
"I think it's important not just because it's Australia, but for ourselves and our team, because we've got the momentum," said Rodrigues. "So we need to keep that momentum, keep doing the things, don't focus mainly on the results. So I think it plays a huge impact on our team and I think we look forward to it, but not get carried away and try to do even better in the semi-finals."