After 14 days of hard quarantine and a couple of practice sessions, India kicked off their much-awaited tour to Australia with a 36-run loss to the hosts in a warm-up encounter in Brisbane on Saturday (September 18). Only 13 of India’s 18-member squad took part in that match with all of Harmanpreet Kaur, Jemimah Rodrigues, Punam Raut, Shikha Pandey and Taniya Bhatia missing out. Although skipper Mithali Raj said the match was used as an opportunity to take a look at what the new members of the squad have to offer, the decision raised several eyebrows.
Ahead of the ODI-leg of the multi-format series that begins at the Great Barrier Reef Oval in Mackay on Tuesday (September 21), India have several questions to answer when picking their XI. While much of the line-up selects itself based on form and reputation, there are a few holes that India will be keen to plug looking ahead to the 2022 Women’s World Cup.
Out with the old, in with the new?
One of the biggest questions thrown up after India's warm-up match was the exclusion of batter Jemimah Rodrigues. After a string of poor scores in international cricket this year (68 runs in eight matches in 2021), the right-hand top-order batter turned her disappointing form around during her stint with Northern Superchargers in The Hundred. Rodrigues blasted 249 runs in just seven innings to finish as the second-highest run-getter in the tournament. Such an emphatic return to form meant many thought Rodrigues would be given the opportunity to slide back into the ODI XI.
However, after what transpired in the warm-up match, one could conclude that neither Rodrigues or senior batter Punam Raut (336 runs in seven matches in 2021) are on India’s ODI radar at the moment, with the team keen to take a closer look at some untested talent.
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Left-hander batter Yastika made a good account of herself, scoring a 42-ball 41 against the Australian attack. Having spent the entire series against South Africa on the bench, Yastika has returned to the Indian setup with plenty more confidence and a wider array of strokes in her repertoire. Her improved attacking play caught the team management’s eye through the camp in Bangalore, and it seems in the absence of Kaur, the left-hander may just sneak past the more seasoned pros to earn her maiden ODI cap.
Where’s the skipper’s place?
No discussion about the Indian team is ever complete without touching upon the skipper’s batting position. Through the series against England, Raj walked in at No.4, needing to steady the innings and shepherd the team to respectable totals. She scored three half-centuries on the trot, holding together what was a misfiring batting line up. The poor returns of Rodrigues and the Raut’s low strike rate meant the calls for Raj to move up the order grew louder as the series progressed.
Now, in the absence of lieutenant Kaur who has been ruled out of the opening ODI with a thumb injury, whether Raj will consider moving herself up the order is a question.
“I have been very flexible with my batting order whether it’s number three or number four, but it all depends on the composition of the team,” Raj said on the eve of the opening match. “If we have a good middle order, then I push myself up the order and if there’s a little bit inexperience, then I push myself down the order to number four. It all depends on the composition of the team, and now, with Harman out for the first ODI, I probably have to think about my order again.”
In 93 ODI innings at one-drop, Raj has scored over 3700 runs at an average of 52, significantly higher than her 47 at No.4. Easily India’s best, most accomplished batter, she would do well to move herself up the order and control the innings from there.
Who 'keeps their spot?
In the absence of regular ‘keeper Taniya Bhatia during the home series against South Africa in March 2021, Richa Ghosh leapfrogged Nuzhat Parween and Shweta Verma in the pecking order to don the gloves for India. While not flawless, the teenager showed great potential and plenty of heart behind the stumps, and was thus given a full series to prove herself as India’s T20I wicketkeeper-batter on the tour of England.
During that three-match series, Ghosh held her own with the gloves, and proved to be more than handy with the bat – playing a couple of inspired cameos. With the ability to clear the field at will, and also an understanding of how to access different scoring areas, Ghosh could be the answer to India’s middle-order muddle. In a line-up that is full off accumulators, the right-hander could provide impetus to innings that often splutter to a stop.
However, the question arises whether Ghosh’s inclusion would mean Taniya’s exclusion. Touted as the best ‘keeper in the country by far, Bhatia’s returns with the bat have been poor. Shunted up and down the order, she has failed to make much of an impact after registering a maiden fifty in her first ODI innings.
Despite her shortcomings with the bat, Bhatia’s ‘keeping has been close to flawless since her debut in 2018. In her short career, she has accounted for 26 dismissals in 18 ODIs, forming a strong partnership with the spinners, and drawing high praise from the seam contingent as well.
The team combination in the warm-up game with Ghosh having taken the gloves points to the possibility of the youngster making her debut in the first ODI.
Which allrouder do you choose?
Sneh Rana made a stirring return to the Indian side on their tour to England, headlining the drawn Test and their only ODI victory. Not only did the off-spinner bowl with great control, but she also showed excellent temperament with the bat in the lower middle-order. Her ability to find the boundary at the back end of the innings and also close out games could prove to be vital over the next six to eight months.
However, Rana may face stiff competition for her spot from fellow allrounder Pooja Vastrakar. Having kicked off her international career on a promising note, Vastrakar’s poor run with injuries has meant she has fallen back in the pecking order. Yet, with India having recognised the need to find more attacking batters who can also contribute with the ball, and her valiant half-century in the warm-up encounter, Vastrakar may have an important part to play in this series.
With the conditions in Mackay said to suit the fast bowlers, the pace of Vastrakar could be vital. Within the Indian squad, she is one of only two bowlers – the other being Meghna Singh – who can bowl a very good bouncer and potentially rush the batters for pace. Her power with the bat is another factor that could tempt Mithali Raj to include her in the side.
Women’s CricZone’s predicted XI: Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma, Mithali Raj (c), Yastika Bhatia, Deepti Sharma, Richa Ghosh (wk), Pooja Vastrakar, Sneh Rana, Shikha Pandey*, Jhulan Goswami, Poonam Yadav
*Subject to fitness. If unfit, Meghna Singh could make her debut.