When it emerged that India’s tour to the West Indies last October clashed with the Women’s Big Bash League, there were concerns that Indian cricket would miss out. Meanwhile, the rest of the world cashed in. South Africa had eight players in the WBBL, England had seven. New Zealand, too, had seven players, which meant that them and Australia, the two teams who accompany India in the group of death, had plenty of representation.
The recently concluded T20I Tri-series made up for some of that lost ground. Instead of two or three players gaining game-time, the entire squad did. And they made good use of it. Against most predictions (especially after India lost their warm up game against the Governor General’s XI), India made the final, and briefly put themselves in a position to win the title. For a team that has an average age of 22.8, it was a promising start.
A comparison to where India stood at the end of their last T20 World Cup is a useful lens to look through to this one. For starters, they have a coach who seems likely to keep his job for a while. WV Raman inherited a team that had won eight out of their last nine T20Is, but proceeded to lose their next six, succumbing to T20I whitewashes by New Zealand (away) and England (at home). It seemed that he took that time to figure out who fit where. Young blood came into the side, and since then they have won 10 of the 14 games they have played. Even if wins against under-strength South Africa and West Indies are discarded, India beat both England and Australia in the tri-series, a happy portent.
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They have a dressing room that seems warm and open, a place where newcomers seem welcome, where songs waft across the table at dinner time. This environment has allowed a player like Shafali Verma progress faster than expected. The team has shown a willingness to look beyond numbers and results and measure intent instead. The blooding of 16-year old Richa Ghosh in a tri-series final is a case in point, age and experience no bar.
They have even more spin options to choose from. Rajeshwari Gayakwad has forced her way back into the side, and topped the wicket taking charts in both the Challenger Trophy and the tri-series. Poonam Yadav is available for selection again, and Radha Yadav has picked up wickets in each of her last 21 matches. Their form might tempt India to use a four-pronged spin attack, even while every other team packs their side with pace.
But most importantly, India have a settled opening combination, a point of much contention at the end of 2018. If in that World Cup, Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur were the batters everyone wanted to see the back of, Shafali Verma has shown just why she is now public enemy No. 1 for opposition bowlers, with a 28-ball 49 against Australia announcing her arrival on the world stage.
2018 saw India cement Jemimah Rodrigues as their No. 3, and going into 2020, India can add Verma to that list of potential match-winners. At this rate, India are scheduled to solve their middle-order concerns in 2022. Bowlers who can hit the long ball and finishers with the bat are still posts that India are auditioning for. In the tri-series final, India failed to chase down 38 off 27 balls after the dismissals of Mandhana and Harmanpreet.
Significantly, this tournament will be the first time since 1999 that an Indian team will play a global tournament without at least one of Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami involved. The 37-year old veterans might yet play the 2021 Women’s World Cup in about a years time, but this edition will see a younger crop get an opportunity to make a name for themselves.
But for India to become anything more than dark horses, they will need to perform as a unit. Despite the highest run-scorer and the highest wicket-taker in the tri-series being Indians, it was Australia standing on the podium.
Smriti Mandhana has expressed a determination to be the one to finish off games, and not rely on the middle order. Coupled with the red hot form she is in (216 runs in five games in the tri-series at a strike rate of 136.7), she is certainly the most feared element of India’s batting line up.
One to Watch:
Poonam Yadav hasn’t played a competitive game since November 2019, but that could prove a blessing in disguise, as her leg spin will carry a bit of mystery as well. Word from the nets is that she’s been bowling well and working on her variations.
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Squad: Harmanpreet Kaur (c), Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues, Harleen Deol, Veda Krishnamurthy, Taniya Bhatia (wk), Deepti Sharma, Shikha Pandey, Pooja Vastrakar, Poonam Yadav, Radha Yadav, Arundhati Reddy, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Richa Ghosh.
February 21: India vs Australia, in Sydney (Showground)
February 24: India vs Bangladesh, in Perth (WACA)
February 27: India vs New Zealand, in Melbourne (Junction Oval)
February 29: India vs Sri Lanka, in Melbourne (Junction Oval)