When India arrived at the Seddon Park on Saturday (March 12), there was a sense of nervousness. They were up against West Indies, against whom they had won 20 out of their 25 matches. Despite bowling and inability to take wickets in the middle overs being a major concern heading into the tournament, India’s supposed strength, batting, was under a bit of scrutiny after the first two games in the World Cup.
In the first game, India were going strong and were 96 for 1 at one point. However, they slipped to 114 for 6 before Pooja Vastrakar and Sneh Rana revived the innings. In the second game, India never got going. They were 50 for 3 after 20 overs and left too much for the later half of the innings during the chase. Hence, heading into the third game, against a West Indies unit, which had recently outclassed England and New Zealand, India were all but not at peace.
The Saturday afternoon in Hamilton started off in a brisk fashion with Yastika Bhatia taking on the attack against pacers early in the innings. However, once her 21-ball 31 ended, India went into their shell once again. From 47 for 0 after six overs, the side slipped to 79 for 3 at the 15-over mark. They lost Bhatia, Mithali Raj and Deepti Sharma in the process.
This was the moment when Smriti Mandhana, who wasn’t looking at her fluent best, was joined by Harmanpreet Kaur. Their backs were against the wall and the senior pros got into the recovery act. In the build-up to the World Cup, Kaur’s form with the bat had been questioned, given her numbers which didn’t make for a happy reading.
At this point, India’s batting stand-outs in the tournament had been a partnership between No. 7-No. 8 and a lone battle by Kaur against the White Ferns. But, there was determination from Mandhana and Kaur to make this stand count. This was only the ninth time these two were batting together in an ODI match. In T20Is, the pair has the joint record for the most fifty plus stands in T20I.
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The main reason why the two hardly ever get an opportunity to bat together in ODIs is because Kaur generally bats lower down the order at no. 5 or no. 6 while Mandhana opens the innings. For all she has achieved, one criticism which she can’t stop coming her way is the poor conversion rate. Till Saturday, the southpaw had 21 fifties and four centuries. Out of those 21 scores between 50 and 99, she has stayed not out only four times.
Since the World Cup 2017, the game has moved way forward and Mandhana has been a part of it in some ways. Since 2018, her strike rate has been 89.85, third-best among all batters who have scored more than 1000 runs. As an opener, the responsibility on her shoulders is quite a lot, given how the Indian middle-order shaped up in recent times. It won’t be right to expect her to play match-winning knocks every other day, but when she gets going, she has to get a big one.
In Hamilton, Mandhana’s managed to do exactly that. In the first ten overs, she scored 20 off 25 while in the second phase she managed 11 off 21. In overs between 20 and 30, she added 34 off 32. The brilliance of Mandhana lies in these three phases of the game, even though she added almost double of those in the next few overs.
Despite struggling to find her best rhythm, she kept turning over the strike, trying to build a partnership. Now, this is a simple thing. But, in this Indian set-up, this skill is not a given. Their middle order has faced criticism in the recent past for failing to do so. Against West Indies, after six overs, Mandhana had faced 18 deliveries. She went on to face the same number of balls in the next nine overs, the period where India failed to control and take charge of the game.
But, once Kaur arrived at the crease, rotation of the strike wasn’t something to be worried about. The southpaw made 46 of her runs through singles along with five doubles and one three. Kaur was equally proficient, she got 41 singles and eight doubles. These numbers partly explains why West Indies bowlers kept struggling to find their rhythm.
“I think when she came in to bat, I think we were focusing more on singles and doubles because we had lost three quick wickets and we didn't want to play another shot or get out or something and we didn't want to even stop the run rate – so our discussion was both of us said that we'll just keep batting and I'm sure we'll get singles and doubles and let's just convert the singles, into doubles - that something which we all spoke in the dressing room after the New Zealand match,” Mandhana said after the match.
On top of that, the duo batted well together because there are a few things which help them in complimenting each other. “As batters, we both prefer chasing and setting the target together. Our strengths are really different because she is really good with spin and I like pace on the ball. So, when the spinner comes on I give her the strike and when the pacer comes on she gives me the strike,” Mandhana added.
Kaur, who was standing next to her, after being dragged by the opener to share the player of the match award, noted, “The set batter was there, in the last game against New Zealand it was missing, today Smriti was there. I was getting that rhythm, once we are settled we can get the boundaries as well. The understanding and the lefty-righty combination helped us.”
The two things which should stand out was the fact that right-left combination was something which was slightly missing for India in the last game. They packed their entire top order with lefties, allowing for New Zealand to use an off-spinner in the power play, playing into the hands of the opposition. India decided to push Mithali Raj back to no. 3 against West Indies to break the back to back left-handers combination, but the plan wasn’t all that successful.
The partnership of 184 runs between Kaur and Mandhana is a template for the other batters on how to build a partnership and help their side get big totals. This was only the third time India were able to score more than 300 in ODIs. Interestingly, the last time India crossed that landmark was back in 2018 against South Africa. Mandhana scored her highest ODI score (135) back then and Kaur also contributed with a fifty.
With two wins in three games, India currently stand on top of the points table. But bigger challenges are going to come their way in the next few matches. Against some of the more potent bowling attacks, such as that of Australia, South Africa and England, India batters need to take a leaf out of the books of Mandhana and Kaur.