Dropping Mithali Raj was an error, but who’ll make some other bold calls?

Kirstie Gordon in action. ©ICC

There were strong indications one night before India’s World Twenty20 semifinal against England in Antigua that Mithali Raj won’t be featuring in the XI. Harmanpreet Kaur confirmed the news after electing to bat first on a slowish surface at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium that had already been used for the first semifinal between Windies and Australia.

She said the team management wanted to go with the same composition as in the last league game against Australia, which Mithali had missed because of being “unwell”.

The current team management after Ramesh Powar became the head coach in August has been hailed for making some bold calls and injecting freshness into the dressing room. Enabling youngsters to play a fearless brand of cricket has been high on its agenda, and the approach shone through in the wins against New Zealand and Australia in Guyana. Those two convincing victories must have given Powar and Harmanpreet enough belief to stick to that theory ahead of the semifinal in Antigua, where India were playing for the first time. Fair enough, but how about a bit of re-strategising based on the ground situation after watching the way Australia, who boast of the best batting depth, read the conditions and paced their innings against Windies?

Alyssa Healy and Meg Lanning spent the maximum time batting in that game, and both said it was a difficult surface to adapt to. They relied more on their deftness than power to put up a match-winning partnership of 51 runs. Lanning, especially, was industrious in her approach. She focussed on rotating the strike and hit only two fours in her 39-ball 31. She was in the middle for 83 balls as others played around her. It was a display of common sense approach towards anchoring an innings, something which is Mithali’s biggest strength.

Mithali was in form before sitting out against Australia. Her twin half-centuries against Pakistan and Ireland in the last two outings fetched her the player of the match awards. The knock against Ireland when India had to set a total stood out because others found the pitch tough. Not that Mithali guaranteed a big knock against England, but by picking her in the XI India would have given itself the best chance to bat better on an used surface instead of being clueless beyond a point and being dismissed for 112 in 19.3 overs.

It was also India’s first match under floodlights since their loss to Windies in the 2016 World T20 in Mohali, and Mithali’s experience of batting in the night would have come handy too. Against a high quality England bowling attacking, India’s lack of batting depth was exposed.

Smriti Mandhana set the platform with a quickfire 34, but she got out in the last ball of the Power Play after hitting five fours and a six. That was the end of India’s boundary count till Jemimah Rodrigues broke the shackles in the fifth ball of the 13th over. It ushered in a purple patch where Rodrigues and Harmanpreet scored 22 in a space of two overs during their stand of 36 runs. When batting first in the league games in Guyana, India were always after such a phase of play from where they aimed to tee off. Here, with the pitch offering a lot of grip and turn, the demand was at least one batter to grind till the end.

Mandhana’s performance ticked the box even though she would have liked to convert it into a big one, and Rodrigues and Harmanpreet delivered partially with 42 runs between them. Rest of the batting unit produced 31 runs, with six batters falling for single-digit scores.

Veda Krishnamurthy, a regular in the side for four years now, played a nothing shot to get out in the 16th over when she should have aimed to give Harmanpreet company and take charge of the last stretch of the innings. As India lost their last eight wickets for 23 runs, fans once again wondered how many batters truly have the mettle to trust in a simplistic approach rather than trying to hide their limitations by being adventurous.

England offered the perfect lesson in batting in these conditions. They were never going to be under any scoreboard pressure in their chase despite losing two early wickets, and India’s bowling was too predictable and fielding ordinary. There was no cushion on offer for the spinners, who had defended 194 against New Zealand and 167 against Australia.

India lost two wickets in an over twice against England; the last 36 balls producing just one four and 19 dots. This was India’s first knockout game in an ICC tournament since the nine-run loss in the World Cup final at Lord’s last year where they collapsed from 191 for 2 to 219 all out in a chase of 229. Harmanpreet said at the post-match ceremony that this game offers learnings for a young unit. Fair enough, but for how long will India learn in a world event instead of being the team to beat? What has been the actual development between 2017 World Cup final and this loss?

Powar and Harmanpreet have been at the helm of some superlative performances over the last two weeks, but completely failed to adapt in a crunch game. But also there are tough questions that BCCI needs to answer.

What happens now? Well, what happened after the 2017 World Cup final?

Nothing tangible to be excited about.

The next big event is the 2020 World T20 in Australia. Will BCCI use this momentum of a World T20 semifinal appearance after eight years and create a pathway towards the next event or will it leave the team alone to lick their wounds? Is their anyone in the board who can take the gutsy call of starting a Women’s Indian Premier League from this season onwards? Is their anyone who is accountable for building a robust domestic structure at both senior and age-group level? The women now don’t even get half of the game days that men who represent their state teams get. Can there be more ‘A’ tours like it is for the men’s under Rahul Dravid? Can an India Under-19 team be formed? Is there a talent spotting team in place keeping the 2021 50-over World Cup in mind? Is their any conscious effort by the board to create the first defining moment for women’s cricket in India?

These questions have been asked in the past, but there are no answers yet. As witnessed after every ICC tournament, it could be the start of another stretch of long and painful wait.