India Women End SA ODI Series With More Questions Than Answers
The over-dependence on the likes of Mitahli Raj, Smriti Mandhana, Harmanpreet Kaur and Jhulan Goswami is evident.
The much-awaited comeback of the Indian Women’s cricket team ended contrary to expectations as the side went down 1-4 in what was a one-sided affair. The rustiness and the lack of match practice was all too evident as the Eves failed to put up a fight against the South Africans, who have now won nine of their last ten ODI games.
The series loss, however, would not have been analyzed had the Indians taken the games as a dress rehearsal for the 50-over World Cup in New Zealand next year and returned with answers to their long-lingering questions. With no confirmation on their next international assignment and knowing the BCCI’s apathy towards this facet of cricket, the five-match series should have been treated as a valuable opportunity to fix the chinks in the armour, shortlist the potential squad for the extravaganza and prepare the youngsters by throwing them in the middle of different pressure situations.
Instead, the Indian management’s questionable approach that began with the omissions of Shikha Pandey, Ekta Bisht and Taniya Bhatiya from the squads, has further compounded matters. The lack of chances given to newbies in the recent series makes it impossible to guess the probable squad. The over-dependence on Mitahli Raj, Smriti Mandhana, Harmanpreet Kaur and Jhulan Goswami is evident and the inability to perform on tracks that do not have much spin is a worry. Further, the number of matches that they have on hand to tackle all woes is a guessing game, and the Women in Blue should be disappointed that they failed to end with possible solutions with the World Cup lurking.
Who is the Second Seamer?
Ahead of the series, vice-captain Harmanpreet had stated that the Indians had “rested” Shikha to give an opportunity to newer players with an eye on the World Cup. The decision had sparked a row as the need to “rest” a player who had not played international cricket for over a year was, and might never be, understood. Since her ODI debut in August 2014, Shikha is the ninth highest wicket-taker in the world (73 wickets in 52 matches), with an average of 21.06 (the sixth best among players with more than 70 wickets in the interim). She is also more than handy with the bat, scoring 272 runs when batting between numbers seven to 11 with a strike rate of 90.66 (the second-best strike rate among all players who have more than 270 runs in the position).
The second-highest wicket-taker for India in the T20 World Cup last year should ideally have never been dropped from the squad, especially considering that the 31-year old would need a few games to hit her straps. The decision to “rest” her could only have been justifiable if a young and talented seamer had been backed in the series and emerged as a strong contender to make the World Cup squad.
Other than Goswami, the Indian selectors had included two other seamers for the South Africa ODI series - Monica Patel and Mansi Joshi. The latter had 11 games under her belt before the series and had picked up 13 scalps, while Patel had been given her maiden international call-up. Joshi, who had been a part of the 2017 World Cup had been troubled by a spate of injuries since 2018 but was always in line to be the side’s third seamer, after Goswami and Shikha.
The selections hinted at the players the Indians were looking at for the World Cup and wanted to give exposure to. However, Patel was dropped after the first ODI and only got a chance in the fifth game again, while Joshi played three games in the series. In Goswami’s absence in the fourth ODI due to injury, only one seamer in Joshi took the field, when Patel could have been slotted in as well and thrown into the midst. In the absence of a senior pro who absorbs pressure, Patel’s temperament would have come to the fore.
Instead, by limiting chances and not allowing the newcomer adequate match time, the questions over the fast bowling resources have not quietened. The left-armer (a rare commodity in women’s cricket) lends great variety to the bowling, but her wobbly seam position and lack of zing are areas that needs to be improved. Whether a few more games here could have have helped will always be up for debate, but it is certain that the decision to “rest” Shikha to give chances to other players was not the best one.
The Batting Line-up Remains a Muddle
Mandhana’s opening partner is unconfirmed, the batters are playing out of positions due to lack of options and the lower middle order can not be left to rebuild the innings in case of early wickets.
Jemimah Rodrigues, Mandhana’s opening partner, has looked out of sorts since the start of 2020, when she managed a high score of 34 in 10 T20I innings. She totaled 10 runs at the top in three games in the recent series, following which she was dropped for the last two matches, and this is where the omission of Shafali Verma in the ODI squad hurt India the most.
The youngster, who impressed with her big-hitting skills Down Under in the T20 World Cup last year, has the ability to tee off from the word-go, which could have helped Mandhana play her natural game. The left-hander looks to anchor the innings upfront and then go for her strokes as she gets her eye in, but with Rodrigues constantly failing, the pressure has only mounted. Giving Verma an opportunity to get accustomed to the 50-over format and allowing her a few games before taking a final call on the 17-year old as an ODI opener would have been a wise decision, but sans that, all Team India have as options now are an out-of-form Rodrigues or a seven-match old Priya Punia who has been in and out of the side.
Punam Raut has consolidated her place as the number three with scores of 10, 62*, 77, 104* and 10 in five games, but the middle order remains muddled. The lack of a finisher and a reliable option at six has forced Mithali to bat at number four in the last few seasons, even though her best numbers are at number three. The Indian skipper’s strike rate, suited for batting at three, is inadvertently piling on pressure on Harmanpreet, who has the responsibility of playing her strokes but without much risk as her wicket will expose an almost-absent lower middle order.
In the last three years, numbers six to eight from India have scored only 555 runs (only West Indies, Bangladesh and Ireland have scored lesser), at a strike rate of 64, or an average of 23.13 runs by the three wickets per game. In the series against South Africa as well, the lower middle order failed to get going, scoring 97 runs combined in five games. Team India went from 102 for 3 to 177 for 9 in 24.5 overs in the first ODI and lost six wickets for 51 runs in the fifth ODI, which only highlights the issues. Though Deepti Sharma is an able batter, her career strike rate of 63.67 is not the most-suited for a finisher.
Team India’s failed to give chances to and find potential finishers in the series, which could be a major Achilles Heel in the World Cup next year.
The Toothless Spin Attack
The Indian spinners have led India to the semi-finals and the finals of the last two T20 World Cups, respectively, but there is no denying that the tracks that they played on had major assistance for the slower bowlers. In Lucknow, where the track was not spin-friendly, the spinners were rendered toothless as 11 spinners picked up 13 wickets at an average of 53.15. In comparison, just three spinners from the visiting team picked up 6 wickets at an average of 38.16.
Rajeshwari Gayakwad ended as the leading wicket-taker among slower bowlers, with 8 scalps at an average of 20.25, but no other spinner from India managed to average less than 40, with T20I stars Poonam Yadav and Radha Yadav going wicketless. Though the former has excellent numbers away from home in ODIs (an average of 20.31, in contrast to her career average of 22.94), and the series is more of an aberration for Poonam, the lack of sting on offer by the overall spin unit could be an issue on wickets in New Zealand that traditionally do not have offer much.
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