Captaincy or technique: the reason for Harmanpreet Kaur’s slump?

On the lookout for runs: Harmanpreet Kaur. © Getty Images

India’s ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2020 campaign will be remembered for three things: teen-sensation Shafali Verma’s exploits, the team’s meltdown in the final, and Harmanpreet Kaur’s indifferent form with the bat. In the five innings she batted, the Indian captain scored 30 runs with a high of 15. Her silent bat caused a great stir, leading pundits to question if Kaur should stay in charge of the side. Was the burden of leadership having an adverse effect on her batting?

“Maybe Harmanpreet should give up captaincy and play her natural game,” Diana Edulji, former India captain, told PTI. “Something seems to be troubling her. But who else takes over then? If Smriti is handed captaincy, it might affect her batting too.”

Shantha Rangaswamy echoed her former teammate’s sentiments. “I am sure she (Kaur) will know when to give up captaincy, and it is time for her to review her captaincy. She is a mature person because she definitely is needed in the team much more as a batter than captain, especially in T20Is.”

However, contrary to popular opinion, a closer analysis of the statistics suggests that Kaur’s performances generally improve as skipper. The evidence suggests that she has enjoyed the responsibility and taken real charge of the team.

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In her 114-match long T20I career, Kaur has scored 2186 runs at an average of 26.98, with one century and six half-centuries. Of these, she has collected 1256 as captain, at an average over 30.

T20I career record:

  M I NO R HS Avg. 100s 50s
As capt. 59 55 14 1256 103 30.63 1 4
Not capt. 55 47 7 930 77 23.25 0 2
Overall 114 102 21 2186 103 26.98 1 6

Kaur’s initial years as full-time skipper of the T20I team indicate that the additional responsibility suited her game. When Stafanie Taylor’s West Indies came calling in November 2016, it was Kaur who stood up to the challenge blasting 171 runs at a strike rate of 123.91.

Record in T20I wins as captain:

  M I NO R HS Avg. 100s 50s
Batting first 21 21 3 476 103 26.44 1 1
Chasing 17 15 9 284 42* 47.33 0 0
Overall 38 36 12 760 103 31.66 1 1

She continued to perform admirably in 2018 whilst building a team “with an eye on the future.” As India moved through a period of transition, the burden of the batting largely rested on her shoulders. Both Mithali Raj and Smriti Mandhana continued to chip away at the top of the order, but the middle was where India struggled. They had a soft underbelly, and Kaur was the lone source of protection.

In the T20 World Cup that year, Kaur smashed 183 runs in the tournament, second on the batting charts, perilously close to toppling Mithali’s record T20 World Cup tally of 203 in 2014.

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But a few months on, we’ve been left wondering where the runs – and the batting energy – have gone.

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Let’s get one thing clear straight off the bat — Harmanpreet Kaur has never been known for her consistency. She’s always been India’s impact player; a ‘game changer’ who can win a match from any position. She has done it several times in the past, but consistency has never been her forte. Therefore, her career graph will have several troughs and peaks. When she’s on, there’s no one to rival her, but when she’s searching for form, she’s well and truly out of it.

Harmanpreet Kaur's average every calendar year. © Women's CricZone
Kaur’s batting average every calendar year. © Women’s CricZone

The 31-year-old’s numbers suggest she has had a rather poor run with the bat since the start of 2019, particularly in T20Is.

Batting returns since January 2019:

Format M I NO R HS Avg. SR 50s
ODI 9 6 2 152 46 38.00 70.37 0
T20I 21 20 4 300 43 18.75 95.23 0
Overall 30 26 6 452 46 22.60 85.12 0

India’s form in ODIs over the last 15 months has seen them defeat New Zealand, England (a series Kaur missed), South Africa and West Indies. In most of these wins, the top order has scored heavily, leaving little work for the middle-order. Which means, whenever Kaur has had to bat, she has often had to simply do a finishing job.

T20Is, on the other hand, are a different story altogether. The team’s inconsistency has seen Kaur come in to bat in various situations — late in the game, needing to go hammer and tongs, in the middle overs, when the tempo needs to be raised, and even early in the innings, when a foundation needs to be laid. She hasn’t always been able to cope with the demands of the game, and her poor form has often meant that a typically slow start comes back to hurt the team.

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If you watch Kaur’s innings of 171 against Australia in 2017, what will strike you — power aside — is her bat-swing and how she hit straight through the line of the ball. While most of her boundaries came on the leg-side, never did the right-hander hit across the line or around her pad. Her nifty footwork allowed her to step into the line and swing through it. Her century in the 2018 T20 World Cup was much the same story.

However, in the 2020 edition of the tournament, it seemed like all of that had disappeared. Kaur often got herself into a tangle, her foot coming well across to cover off stump while she tried to access the ball around her pad. There was little rhythm in her batting. Her feet were planted firm while her hands went at the ball. This was a batter struggling to buy a run.

“If you look at her early foot movement, it’s always across the stumps, so she closes off that on-side,” Lisa Sthalekar said on air during India’s game against Sri Lanka. “She has to then play around her pad. That’s why she’s been caught & bowled (and) LBW a couple of times.”

Kaur’s movement across the stumps meant she was generally able to hit better through the off-side. She resorted to using the pace to cut skillfully and even went over the top a couple of times. However, the minute the ball was honing in on the stumps, she looked like a fish out of water — fending awkwardly before pulling out her favourite release shot, the slog sweep.

Of the 30 runs she scored (in 42 balls) in five innings, 21 came off the front foot and nine off the back foot. Kaur hit five boundaries in all — four fours and a six. 22 runs off just five balls. Her remaining eight runs came off six balls. That amounts to a total of 11 scoring deliveries. The bowlers clearly had her on a leash.

Kaur’s scoring patterns in T20Is since Jan 2018:

  R B W RpD SR 0 1 2 3 4 6
vs pace 358 348 11 32.54 102.87 135 141 18 1 37 5
vs spin 602 488 18 33.44 123.36 180 188 24 0 51 27
Overall 960 836 29 33.10 114.83 315 329 42 1 88 32

Runs scoring patterns in T20 World Cup 2020:

  R B W RpD SR 0 1 2 4 6
vs pace 5 17 1 5.00 29.41 13 1 2 0 0
vs spin 25 25 4 6.25 100.00 13 3 0 4 1
Overall 30 42 5 5.25 71.23 26 4 2 4 1

Kaur’s poor form is underlined by one glaring fact: she struggled to score freely against spin, and was unable to rotate the strike. Anyone who knows of or has seen her bat is well aware that she thrives against spin. The numbers suggest the same.

While the runs per dismissal (RpD) data has remained largely the same in recent times, Kaur is clearly far more comfortable and dynamic against spin – opening up more boundary options and turning over the strike more efficiently. That four of her five dismissals came against tweakers – all rather ‘soft’ ones – this time around shows how out of form she really was.

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Despite her dreadful showing with the bat, the tournament was not all doom and gloom for Kaur. One of the most (pleasantly) surprising things about her team’s campaign was the way she handled herself and her teammates on the field.

“She is keen to learn as a player and captain,” WV Raman, India head coach, said. “She is very good with the youngsters, makes them feel they belong and keeps encouraging them. As a captain, she relates to them and makes sure she is constantly engaging in dialogue.”

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In a clip released by the ICC, ahead of India’s group game against New Zealand, there is a shot of Kaur with her arm around Rajeshwari Gayakwad. The Indian T20I skipper was giving her bowler instructions — seemingly trying to calm her down after being hit for a boundary. She had control over the situation, and was making her bowler aware of the same. ‘You’ve got this!’, her body language suggested. ‘I know you do!’

Rewind a few years and the image of Kaur tearing into a 19-year-old Deepti Sharma at the Women’s World Cup in 2017 is what springs to mind. Kaur had just brought up her century, but instead of celebrating her milestone, she ripped off her helmet, flung it on the ground and unleashed a barrage of angry words that reduced Deepti to tears. It was ugly. It was passionate. In many ways, it was quintessential Kaur.

https://twitter.com/T20WorldCup/status/1232865565955497990?s=20

Ever since she took over as full-time T20I captain, Kaur was seen as the antithesis to Mithali. Where the ODI skipper was visibly calm, composed, rarely letting her emotions show and almost always in control of every situation, Kaur was loud, angry and wore her heart on her sleeve. When India were on top, you could see it in Kaur’s smile, and when the pressure was on, you could see her beginning to burst like a firecracker.

However, in recent times, Kaur has toned it down. She appears to be a much calmer, approachable leader who is backing her teammates to the hilt. “I trust this team,” the Indian skipper had said following the final defeat against Australia. It was a statement that reflected her new attitude towards her charges. She had built this Indian team, and she would do anything to protect it.

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That Kaur was able to keep it together through the T20 World Cup, indicated her batting was not being affected by the leadership role. Normally one to get cranky, become defensive or throw a fit when things weren’t going her way, she dealt with the media (and her emotions) with utmost grace. It appeared she had become used to the spotlight and all the pressures that come with it.

As the dust settles on India’s campaign and the world turns its attention to more pressing and important matters, one thing is certain — whether or not Kaur remains skipper of the T20I team, she has left an indelible mark on it. She has built a team in her own image — aggressive, exciting and mercurial —and taught a young group of players how to win. Maybe then, it really was the dodgy footwork, and not the captaincy that got to her.