Katherine Brunt has been one of the pillars of the England team. ©ICC

The pitch at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai has more often than not assisted seamers in early morning conditions, but it seemed to have turned into a paradise for them during the One-Day International series between India and England. While Jhulan Goswami and Shikha Pandey exploited the conditions in the first two games that India won comfortably, it was Katherine Brunt’s turn to show her smarts with returns of 5 for 28 that set up England’s thrilling two-wicket win on Thursday (February 28).

Brunt’s fifth five-wicket haul – the joint-most in ODIs along with Anisa Mohammed of Windies – gave England two crucial ICC Women’s Championship points and took them to the fifth position on the table. With England left to play Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Windies next, the defending world champions are now in a position to target direct qualification for the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand.

I had a look at the pitch before the match started, and with good grass cover on it, one felt that the team winning the toss would opt to field first. Instead Mithali Raj chose to bat, and Heather Knight would later admit that she was praying to lose the toss.

It is difficult to question India’s tactic because they have always believed in putting runs on the board and then relying on their bowlers to defend. With England batters having struggled in the first two games, the decision looked even prudent. With the series won, it was also a chance for Indian batters to get some runs before going into the Twenty20 International series.

Brunt, however, had different plans. She took just two deliveries to strike when Jemimah Rodrigues closed the face of her bat against an inswinger and lost her stumps. It was the second consecutive duck for Rodrigues.

Smriti Mandhana and Punam Raut used all their experience to blunt the new ball while on their way to put on 129 runs for the second wicket. With England one bowler short after Sophie Eccelstone, the left-arm spinner, was ruled out because of an injury, it looked like India would put up a huge total. But the entire complexion of the game changed when Knight brought back Brunt for her second spell in the 29th over.

She struck big, sending both the set batters in a space of four deliveries. While Mandhana, not for the first time in her career, played a pull shot against a short delivery straight into the hands of the waiting fielder at deep square leg, Raut failed to read the bounce and swing and was bowled. Both of them made fifties – the first for Raut since 2017 World Cup final – but their departures created havoc in the Indian line-up.

Brunt struck again in her next two overs to break the backbone. Mona Meshram played in the wrong line to be adjudged leg before wicket for a duck, and Mithali was caught behind for 7.

Anya Shrubsole struck in the 34th over as India became 144 for 6. Middle-order has been a concern for India, and it was exposed once again after the departure of Mandhana and Raut. India, in fact, lost six wickets within 21 runs before Deepti Sharma and Shikha, both of who have opened for their state teams in the domestic circuit, revived the innings with an eighth-wicket stand of 47 runs. But it was only enough for India to reach 205 for 8.

Brunt, the oldest player in the England team currently, has been in the circuit since 2004. She is a fierce character – typically Yorkshirish in nature – and more often than not delivers when the stakes are high. Today was just another day in the office where she proved her worth in this gritty England side.

Her aggressive pace bowling is quite known. I have faced her quite a few times during my international career, and she was always on the money. Back then she used to bowl a lot of bouncers and also was the fastest bowler in the world once upon a time. Injuries have forced her pace to come down, but that has hardly affected her accuracy.

In this series – even though she went wicketless in the first two ODIs –  I saw a more smart-thinking bowler who has worked on her variations, especially her nippy off cutters. They proved to be lethal and got her the bulk of wickets in the third game.

After Brunt, Goswami got into the act by providing early breakthroughs for India. It took a few overs for Goswami and Shikha to find the right line and length, but once they got into the groove they were excellent once again. Goswami was particularly a threat with the new ball as the England batters gave away wickets to her.

At 49 for 5, England, who did not field their best XI because of two injuries, looked out of the contest but Knight and Danielle Wyatt, who was making a comeback, had other plans. They showed intent and played the sweep shot against the spinners to good effect, hence negating their threat.

India chose to give Rajeshwari Gayakawad a chance instead of Ekta Bisht, but that does not take away anything from the way the duo scored runs between fine-leg and square-leg. After Knight fell, Wyatt took charge. Her two half-century stands – first with Knight and then with Georgia Elwiss was filled with sensible batting.

By the time Shikha dismissed Wyatt for 56 off 82 balls, victory was very much within reach. While Elwiss showed purpose, Brunt – the day’s hero – was equally influential with the bat. Her 20-ball 18 during the eighth-wicket stand of 30 meant that the strike was continuously rotated and Elwiss did not have all the pressure to score runs.

This collective effort that gave England their first win of the series gives them momentum going into the T20Is in Guwahati, which starts from March 4.

From an Indian perspective, the biggest takeaway was their fifth bilateral series win since 2018. The consistency needs to be appreciated, and Mandhana has been the key figure. Deservingly she won the player of the series award though Shikha could have equally claimed her rights over it with eight wickets.

Finally, a word on the Mumbai crowd. They came in huge number for the third ODI on a weekday and that says something about their passion. For someone like me who has been around for almost two decades, it’s quite overwhelming to see the popularity of women’s cricket rise step by step in front of my eyes.

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