India haven’t needed the cavalry; their Air Force has done the trick
If you’re a fast bowler, Australia is your pilgrimage, and the WACA your temple. You don’t come ring a bell here or bring flowers; you offer pace at the right length to the pitch, and perhaps ring a few helmets.
Shikha Pandey made that pilgrimage this week. As a child, she used to wake up early in the morning to watch the Test cricket that was played there. As a teenager, she probably fantasised over the spells she’s seen bowled there. Curtly Ambrose, his incredible display, taking 7 for 1. Ishant Sharma, in the famous ‘ek aur karega’ match. Irfan Pathan’s match and ball-swinging heroics.
As an adult, she’s now played there.
And watching her in this World Cup, you get the feeling that’s what she is becoming.
An adult bowler. All grown up.
India had scored 133 for 8 in their 20 overs at the Junction Oval in Melbourne on Thursday (Feb 27). Most of those runs came off the bat of Shafali Verma. After boosting India to 75 for 2 in 10 overs, the innings fell apart, with failures from Harmanpreet Kaur, Veda Krishnamurthy, Jemimah Rodrigues and Deepti Sharma. 133 was below par, and India knew it.
Against the batter who had scored 372 runs in her last six games, at a strike rate of almost 148, India needed a good start. With a four-pronged spin attack, there would have been a temptation to use two left-arm spinners at each end.
Instead Harmanpreet Kaur backed her regular new ball specialists, Deepti and Shikha. Deepti conceded 12 in the first over. Pressure on Shikha.
In her first four balls, Pandey removed Rachel Priest, who had scored all those 12 runs. In her next over, she has Sophie Devine, aforementioned profligate batter, rapped on the pads for a LBW appeal that ball tracking shows is narrowly missing leg. Her first spell read 2-0-4-1.
Just like that, India had wrested back control in the Powerplay, prising out two wickets and keeping Devine to just 11 off 12 balls.
The game should have been done and dusted by the time Pandey returned for the final over. Devine had been dismissed and New Zealand had lost five wickets. Instead, somehow New Zealand needed just 16 to win off the last six balls – Amelia Kerr seemed to suddenly find the cheat code to fellow leggie Poonam Yadav, smashing 18 runs off the penultimate over.
Pressure on Pandey again. Even more, when her first yorker is under-edged for four through fine leg.
12 runs off five balls. Gettable. Very gettable.
Pandey recovered with three full balls yielding only three singles. On the fifth, Kerr scooped her over third for four. Five off the last ball needed to win. Four would bring Sophie Devine back to the crease for a Super Over.
Pandey doesn’t panic, doesn’t change her field. She backs her skills. At the last moment, Kerr jumps outside off. One moment after that, Pandey shifts her body weight to the left through her action, following Kerr.
Wide yorker. On the pad, Super Over smashed, and India’s semifinal spot sealed.
It’s not just this one-off game. In the World Cup so far, Pandey has picked up six wickets in 11.5 overs, at an economy rate of 4.14 and an average of 8.16 per dismissal. It is a far-cry from the tri-series, where she took just three wickets in almost 20 overs at an economy of 7.26 and average of 48. In all three World Cup games, she has taken a wicket in the power play. In her last two outings, she has taken a wicket in her first over.
The change has come down to a shift in length; Pandey is primarily a swing bowler, and usually prospers when she gets the batters to drive. In the tri-series, that length didn’t work. Hot and dry conditions meant there was not much in the air. “In the tri-series, I was not getting the kind of in-swing that I ideally want,” she said.
So with the new ball, Shikha has bowled just fractionally shorter in the World Cup, getting them to defend on the front foot instead. It is a length that Jhulan Goswami liked to call the ‘three-quarter length’. It is a length that works in Australia, on both slow pitches and fast. It is not conducive to swing, but can produce seam movement. And since it is bowled into the pitch, it can allow variations to grip the surface.
In Sydney, Pandey removed Beth Mooney with a leg cutter that the batter couldn’t keep down. And in Perth, she went mostly seam up, using the extra pace of the pitch.
Then there’s the death bowling. Against Australia, with 33 needed off 24 balls, she picked up a wicket and conceded just two in the 17th over, with her full, swinging yorkers twice beating the dangerous Ash Gardener, who was batting on 27 off 22. A full toss in the last over of that game was the rare misdirected delivery, and even that brought her the wicket of Gardener, sealing the game for India.
She looks a bit more stable in her run up, and is finishing her action better. Her body language, usually quick to deflate, has markedly improved. She looks assured of her spot in the team, and her role in the side. She knows that she will get the end she needs, and the field she wants.
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Her performance so far caps a remarkable turnaround from the 2018 World T20, where she was excluded. Since then, she’s been impressive enough to feature in the ICC ODI Team of the Year 2019, and had a strong 2019 in T20Is too. Improved fitness and the influence of WV Raman as a stabilising factor is clear. But she has also benefited from the inputs of the bowling coaches that have recently been around the group. Subroto Banerjee, who has worked with the likes of Umesh Yadav and Mitchell Starc, was with the team as a fast bowling coach for the tri-series. And spin bowling coach Narendra Hirwani, who remains with the team for the World Cup, has instilled in her the belief that a bowler doesn’t need an off season to make a few edits. Pandey has implemented as much in this last week.
Pandey’s performance, combined with that of the spinners, has allowed India to use only five bowlers in all three games, with the part-time spin of Harmanpreet being deemed unnecessary. India haven’t needed the cavalry, their Air Force has done the trick.
“I spoke to my father before coming, and he was so excited I was playing at WACA. I’m very fortunate that we could play on WACA given the other stadium is getting a lot of publicity. But I am privileged, and I took a picture as well.”
Pandey isn’t much into Instagram, otherwise we might have seen that photo. Instead she’s focused on the bigger picture. She has now succeeded on three different surfaces, against two of the top sides in the group. Feet on the turf, eyes on the sky (she was recently reading Cosmos, by Charles Sagan).
She finally seems comfortable in the role of spearhead. Out of the shadow of Jhulan Goswami. And in her own skin.
All grown up. And growing still.