This series was always going to be a bit harder for India than South Africa as they were returning to cricket after a year. Though the tourists sealed the series in the fourth ODI, not all is lost for India. With the World Cup scheduled in a year, they would want to play as many ODIs as they can in the lead-up to the tournament.
Which is why, when they take the field in the fifth ODI on Wednesday (March 17), Mithali Raj and Co. would be trying to give their best shot as if the series is on the line. If one looks at the way this series has progressed, it is visible that India has gradually gotten better every match.
They were outplayed in the first, came back strong in the second. In the third and fourth matches, the contest was closer than what the scorecard suggests.
As far as batting is concerned, most players have come to the fore at some point in time. Smiriti Mandhana had her moment, Punam Raut has been consistently scoring, Harmanpreet Kaur, too, played a scintillating knock in the fourth ODI. However, have they come together and put on a comprehensive performance yet? The answer is no.
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One of the concerns is their opening partnerships. In all four matches, India have lost one of the openers early. And that has made the number three and four batters take time, settle and rebuild, before dominating the bowling attack. Though Priya Punia did play well in the fourth ODI, without Mandhana and her partner stamping their authority at the top, it is hard for the kind of batting line-up that India has to counterattack, especially after losing early wickets.
The bigger worry, though, is in the bowling department. In the three matches they lost, India failed to break in early with the new ball, and twice Lizelle Lee and Laura Wolvaardt put on a century partnership. While defending a total, the start with the ball plays a crucial role, especially when the target is not close or above the 300-run mark. For India, both Jhulan Goswami and Mansi Joshi have not provided the breakthroughs consistently in this series.
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Poonam Yadav, their star leg-spinner, has gone wicketless for four matches in a row, which has never happened before in her career. She has been a vital cog in India's bowling arsenal, and her form is crucial in the scheme of things for India going into the World Cup. Whether they will give her a break and provide an opportunity to someone like Prathyusha C is still uncertain.
Raut, too, emphasised giving some time to find the right team combination. "We, as a team, are playing after a long break. We are trying to figure out the right team combination. There are quite a few youngsters in the squad and we have to give them some time to settle. We will learn from our mistakes and get better," she said in the post-match presentation after the fourth ODI.
For South Africa, this series has been pretty straightforward. They have their experienced players in good form, coming on the back of their performances in the Pakistan series and the domestic tournaments before that. Lee and Wolvaardt have ensured that they have gotten the starts, and with the ball, Shabnim Ismail has been a force to reckon, creating opportunities even when there is very little help for the seamers from the surface.
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They have been clinical throughout the series in all three facets of the game. Their top five batters, including Lara Goodall, Mignon du Preez and Marizanne Kapp, have risen the occasion and delivered as and when required. If one had to nitpick, their skipper did not have ample time in the middle with the bat apart from one innings, and she has not bowled much either. Nevertheless, as long as the results are going their way, Luus and team management would not mind it.
Though the series might have been done, the fifth match allows both the teams to experiment with players and find a line-up that would suit them better for the bigger tournament to come.
And India, more than South Africa, will have to make the most out of this opportunity.
India: Mithali Raj (c), Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues, Punam Raut, Priya Punia, Yastika Bhatia, Harmanpreet Kaur (vc), D. Hemalatha, Deepti Sharma, Sushma Verma (wk), Swetha Verma (wk), Radha Yadav, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Jhulan Goswami, Mansi Joshi, Poonam Yadav, C. Prathyusha, Monica Patel
South Africa: Sune Luus (c), Ayabonga Khaka, Shabnim Ismail, Laura Wolvaardt, Trisha Chetty, Sinalo Jafta, Tasmin Britz, Marizanne Kapp, Nondumiso Shangase, Lizelle Lee, Anneke Bosch, Faye Tunnicliffe, Nonkululeko Mlaba, Mignon du Preez, Nadine de Klerk, Lara Goodall, Tumi Sekhukhune