After the fifth T20I, Chamari Athapaththu stood on the pitch the game had been played on, watching the women of her club side train there. Mansi Joshi walked out to the middle to get a selfie with her. In the dressing rooms, souvenir-bats were being scrawled on, kits were being hurriedly packed. Ramesh Powar, Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana cut an incongruous sight as they had an intense discussion on the balcony. But Harsha de Silva restored the cheery vibe as he wished the Indian staff all the best for the WT20 with a warm smile and a large handshake. Safe to say, both team managers were relieved to see the back of me when I said my final farewells.
The mood was of shared optimism, fittingly so. The scoreline may have been one-sided, but there were serious gains for both India and Sri Lanka. And these were attributed in part to the two incoming coaches.
Jemimah Rodrigues cited Ramesh Powar’s backing as instrumental to her 191 runs in four innings, after she came into the series low on confidence. “He gave me one-hour batting in the nets. Who gets one-hour batting?”, she said. And when Chamari Athapaththu got to her century in the third ODI, her first in a chase, her celebration included an ‘all hail’ directed at de Silva.
Both teams ticked boxes that had cobwebs on them, hit limits they hadn’t come close to in years. Sri Lanka won only their second ever ODI against India on the back of that Athapaththu hundred. And in the T20Is, India discovered a batting gear that they had never shown before, and perhaps never known before. This despite minimum contributions from Mandhana, Mithali Raj and before the last game, Harmanpreet.
If you had asked me the Indian team’s chances in the upcoming WT20 last month, I would have told you that they would struggle to reach the semifinals, with both Australia and New Zealand in their group. But to paraphrase L.P. Hartley, the past is a foreign country, one whose border India look to have crossed. Judging by the brand of cricket they played in this series, even if they don’t make the semis, I have a feeling they will go down all guns blazing.
Most coaches speak about playing positive cricket; Powar has redefined that for this team. Mithali Raj found greater urgency (and somehow, greater speed) between the wickets. Smriti Mandhana had the belief to brazenly step out while batting on zero after two failures. There was an intent that bordered on frenzy from the Indians when they batted. Carefree, and in most cases, not careless. Individual Indian players have shown such a voice before, but rarely has it been a team slogan.
India’s best batter in the T20Is was aged 18 and wore braces. The best bowler in the ODIs had only seven games of experience before the series. The find of the tour, Taniya Bhatia, became the first Indian wicketkeeper to score a fifty in five years, and she hasn’t even hit drinking age. The push for younger players is clear.
The experienced Shikha Pandey and Ekta Bisht, 29 and 32 respectively, got only one game on the tour. Arundhati Reddy, in her first series, was the only pace bowler to play all five T20Is. Powar seems to be building a team for 2021, even though his contract only lasts till November. The performances of these younger players has soothed some of the pain of the loss of two ICC women’s Championship points. Also refreshing was how many days India didn’t train; they preferred to spend more time working after the T20 games and take a break in between games. A wise strategy considering a long tour looms.
Besides the third ODI, Sri Lanka pushed India in patches, especially when Shashikala Siriwardene had bat or ball in hand. Athapaththu won player of the series award in the ODIs. Nilakshi de Silva’s big hitting skills were their biggest gain. Both have played cricket in Australia in the last year, showing that foreign opportunities can be exchanged for ICCWC points. Things are far from perfect in their back offices, as Sri Lanka Cricket’s decision not to livestream the T20Is shows. Yet, at the end of the series, you could hear multiple rounds of applause from the changing area during their debrief. It wasn’t the sound of a defeated dressing room.
Sri Lanka will now play a domestic T20 tournament before flying out into the WT20. India have an advantage no other team has: they are scheduled to play three T20Is against the Windies in the next month, just before the tournament, so this West Indies tour will be a long one. No one will be putting their money on either side to win it just yet, but both teams head to the Caribbean in a better place than they were before this series began.