Three years after winning an ODI series 2-1 in New Zealand, India Women are on the brink of a series defeat. With their team losing the solitary T20I and down in the ODIs by two matches to nil, the Indian fans have a reason to feel dejected.
But that is perhaps a call too harsh. Following their abject surrender in the first ODI, India turned things around reasonably well in the second. New Zealand needed 14 in two overs with three wickets in hand. It could have been anybody’s match at that point.
Mithali Raj could have opted for Pooja Vastrakar or Simran Dil Bahadur. Instead, she went for Harmanpreet Kaur. While it was not an obvious choice, bowling an inexperienced seamer was not obvious either. Kaur, Player of the Tournament in the recent Women’s Big Bash League, was probably the likeliest of the three to keep her calm under pressure. She had conceded only six in her last over, and another spinner, Deepti Sharma, had been bowling beautifully at the other end.
The decision backfired. Kaur bowled too short, probably to prevent Amelia Kerr from playing that dangerous sweep, allowing her to pick up comfortable twos, even a three. Even then, India might have stood with an outside chance, had Shafali Verma run Jess Kerr out off the fourth ball.
India lost with an over to spare, and sub-par fielding was one of the factors behind that. New Zealand looked the better side on field (though they dropped the odd catch as well), which had to do with the fact that they had been part of a full-fledged domestic season. The Women’s Super Smash got over on as late as 29 January.
The Indians, on the other hand, have not played competitive cricket since November. The cricketers have attended camps, but their pre-World Cup match practice are – will be – restricted to these six matches in New Zealand. And the quarantine rules in New Zealand have certainly not helped their cause.
Ahead of the match, Sneh Rana mentioned that the cricketers were still adapting to the conditions. That is never easy against one of the top sides at their den.
Three years ago, India had clinched the first two ODIs of the three-match series. Smriti Mandhana had ruled over the New Zealand bowlers, with a 104-ball 105 and an 83-ball unbeaten 90. Jhulan Goswami took 3-23 in the second ODI. Neither was part of the XI on Tuesday.
Despite missing two stars, the Indians showed signs of improvement. Tuesday’s 270/6 was their highest ever in an ODI against New Zealand as well as their third-highest against any side since the 2017 World Cup.
It was not a one-off. Not renowned for huge team totals, India finished the Australia tour with scores of 274/8 and 266/8, both against Australia in Australia, in their last two international matches before the New Zealand tour. In the first case, they lost off the last ball following a controversial no-ball; in the second, they won with three balls to spare.
Drafted in as Mandhana’s replacement, S Meghana stepped up, playing some crisp shots and outscoring Verma in a partnership. Verma herself survived a couple of chances, but probably looked better during her cameo that she has in the series.
Yastika Bhatia continued to impress. However, once Raj will no longer be there to reprise the role she has for more than two decades, longer innings will be expected of her. Not for the first time did Richa Ghosh step up as Raj was happy to play the support act.
India did not merely put up 270/6. They did it without Mandhana, and with both Verma and Harmanpreet Kaur looking off colour. While the omnipresent Raj played her role, the defining innings came from Meghana, Bhatia, and Ghosh, who, along with Mandhana and Verma, are likely to form the core of a power-packed unit over years.
The bowling, on the other hand, remain a concern. India have planned on a World Cup without Shikha Pandey. Perennially dependent on spin, even overseas, India have time and again looked at Goswami to provide them the breakthroughs. In her absence, they ended up bowling 39 overs (out of 49) of spin on a pitch where New Zealand bowled 32 overs of seam.
As Amelia Kerr and Maddy Green added 128 without much fuss, India sorely missed Goswami’s extra pace, her ability to break through the defence of sore batters. Without her, the pace attack looks uncomfortably thin, and it is not a one-off instance either.
Since 2017 World Cup
India’s batting has been falling into place, and will be boosted by Mandhana’s return. The fielding will improve as the team adapts to the conditions. And the spinners have impressed.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the fast bowling. For the rest of the series, eyes will be on Renuka Singh and Meghna Singh, the two Indian seamers ready for post-quarantine returns.
Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketNews and co-author of Sachin and Azhar at Cape Town.