“The opening partnership, if they give us the good start, clearly the middle order can take the momentum from there, but if you lose early wickets, you actually have to build an innings in the first ten overs." This was India skipper Mithali Raj's statement in the post-match press conference after their nine-wicket defeat in the first ODI against Australia.
In a way, Raj was right in saying that not having a solid opening partnership puts the middle-order under pressure, especially while batting first, as their last 100-run opening stand came in November 2019. Since then, they have played nine ODIs and winning only two - both coming while chasing.
However, the openers are not the only reason for India's poor run in the format this year. One of the biggest - something the India head coach Ramesh Powar had talked about after the England tour - is strike rotation and maintaining the run-rate in the middle overs. “Either we have to mould the available players in the squad, or we have to draft in other middle-order players where they can up the ante," he had said.
In the first ODI, between overs five and 15, India scored only 35 runs, with six of them coming in extras. If India were to win against teams like Australia, they would want to find a way to maintain the run rate above five through course of the innings and get to the 250-run mark consistently.
The tourists had missed the services of Harmanpreet Kaur, who was injured, in the first ODI. With Yastika Bhatia doing well at number three, it will be interesting to see where she bats if Kaur comes back for the second ODI. Raj had said that her moving up to number three would depend on the availability of Kaur in the middle-order.
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The other big question is whether the team management could find a way to play Jemimah Rodrigues, who had a prolific run in The Hundred. If so, they will have to keep out either Sneh Rana or Deepti Sharma, which is less likely to happen.
With the ball, Jhulan Goswami, once again, was the lone horse, while the other bowlers struggled to keep the Australian openers in check. Though Meghna Singh had a decent start to her career, India might be tempted to bring back Shikha Pandey to boost the bowling line-up with the series on the line.
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For Australia, who seem to be invincible in the format, there are very few chinks in the armour. They have checked all the boxes with openers scoring runs, Darcie Brown filling in the shoes of Megan Schutt, and spinners taking wickets.
Ellyse Perry had a poor opening spell, but she came back strongly to find her rhythm in the middle overs. If any, they will look at workload management and rotate the fast bowlers. That apart, there is very little for them to do in their bowling department.
Alyssa Healy and Rachael Haynes were proactive at the top, not missing any opportunity to put away a poor delivery while keeping the scorecard moving with singles and doubles. They put the sweep shot to good use against the spinners, something that the Indians might want to take not off to keep their innings going into the second ODI.
However, with Haynes getting injured in the nets, it is uncertain whether the Australian vice-captain will play in the second ODI at this moment. If she misses out, it opens the door for Beth Mooney at the top, with Annabel Sutherland playing in the middle-order, or Georgia Redmayne could make her ODI debut.
Will India end the incredible winning streak that hosts are on, or are Australia truly invincible?
Australia: Meg Lanning (c), Rachael Haynes (vc), Darcie Brown, Maitlan Brown, Stella Campbell, Nicola Carey, Hannah Darlington, Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy, Tahlia McGrath, Sophie Molineux, Beth Mooney, Ellyse Perry, Georgia Redmayne, Molly Strano, Annabel Sutherland, Georgia Wareham.
India: Mithali Raj (c), Harmanpreet Kaur (vc), Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma, Punam Raut, Jemimah Rodrigues, Deepti Sharma, Sneh Rana, Yastika Bhatia, Taniya Bhatia (wk), Shikha Pandey, Jhulan Goswami, Meghna Singh, Pooja Vastrakar, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Poonam Yadav, Richa Ghosh (wk), Ekta Bisht.