Hitter or accumulator, leggie or left-arm spinner: Questions for India ahead of Test return

Ananya Upendran
New Update
Hitter or accumulator, leggie or left-arm spinner: Questions for India ahead of Test return

Mithali Raj leads India on to the field. © Getty Images

As India wrap up their preparation for the one-off Test against England at the County Ground in Bristol beginning on Wednesday (June 16), it seems there are still plenty of questions surrounding the possible team line-up. After a not-so-ideal lead up to the tour – a 14-day quarantine in Mumbai followed by 10 days of managed isolation in Southampton – Mithali Raj’s side finally reached the venue on Monday (June 14) afternoon.

After only a couple of practice sessions at the venue itself, they will have to quickly sum up conditions and pick an XI that they think will win them the Test.

While most of the line-up picks itself based on experience and past performances, there are certain questions that India will need to answer when they pick their final XI for the one-off Test against England.

The openers: power or poise?

Over the last few years, India have introduced some very talented batters to the international arena. Jemimah Rodrigues took to international cricket like a fish to water back in 2018, while Priya Punia came back from an indifferent start in New Zealand to find her feet in the 50-over format. In late 2019, 15-year-old Shafali Verma, too, took the world by storm with her fearless style of play, further strengthening India’s batting riches.

India openers Shafali Verma (L), Jemimah Rodrigues (M) and Priya Punia © Women's CricZone

All three batters find themselves as part of India’s Test squad for the tour of England, and it seems the management have an interesting question on their hands – which one of the three do they pick? With Smriti Mandhana, Punam Raut, Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur likely to occupy four of the top five batting positions, only one of the youngsters can make the XI. While both Punia and Rodrigues have experience playing First-Class cricket, and are likely more suited to the format – their tight techniques and ability to play long innings holding them in good stead – Verma could have a big impact on the game. Her brute power and complete disregard for the stature of the opponents has resulted in plenty of success through her short international career.

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“If a batter goes on to psychologically demoralise the opposition bowlers in the first 45 minutes to one hour, I would take that any day in any format," former India head coach WV Raman told Sports Today on Verma’s inclusion in the side.

“Some players are like that, they don't care what the conditions are, who they are up against, they would back themselves and they'll go after the bowlers and demoralise them."

Will India go with a more conservative approach and pick one of Rodrigues of Punia, or will they unleash a fearless Verma on England and hope that she catches them unaware?

The allrounder: form or familiarity?

Since 2015-16, Deepti Sharma has entrenched herself as India’s lead allrounder. Her ability to bat anywhere in the top seven, and also bowl 10 miserly overs in ODIs has meant that India have been able to play an extra batter in the lower middle order. Of late, however, Sharma’s bowling form seems to have dipped a little. Against South Africa in Lucknow, in March 2021, she took only one wicket in four ODIs and was left out for the final game of the series. On surfaces that were slightly slow, Sharma was unable to generate the bite she is generally known for – bowling much shorter lengths, allowing the South Africa batters to milk her off the back foot.

India spin allrounders Sneh Rana (L) and Deepti Sharma © Women's CricZone

Her competitor in the squad, Sneh Rana, who topped the wicket-charts in the Senior One-Day championship this season, has been bowling like a dream. A classical off spinner, Rana’s ability to get the ball to drift away before spinning sharply in to the batters, was on display through the domestic season. On similar batting-friendly surfaces to those in Lucknow, Rana managed to prize out 18 wickets at an average of 12.66.

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While Sharma’s experience and batting prowess are likely to mean she is the front-runner to make her Test debut on Wednesday, Rana’s form could be giving both Raj and Ramesh Powar plenty to think about.

The third seamer: Speed or accuracy?

Within the Indian cricket circuit, Pooja Vastrakar’s name is synonymous with injury. Since 2017, the fast bowler has had at least two major injuries (knee and ankle) and one niggle (hamstring trouble) that forced her to miss plenty of cricket – both at international and domestic level. Having been dropped from the squad for their home series against South Africa in March, Vastrakar now finds herself as part of the Test, ODI and T20I squads.

In 2018, she showed great spunk against Australia – her brute power with the bat, and raw pace with the ball, catching the visitors by surprise. At the time, she seemed to be the fast bowling allrounder India were desperately searching for. However, injuries have meant Vastrakar has not quite been able to live up to her initial potential.

India pace bowling allrounders Arundhati Reddy (L) and Pooja Vastrakar © Women's CricZone

The fourth seamer in India’s contingent, Arundhati Reddy, was the lead quick during the side’s home series against South Africa earlier this year. Through the three-match T20I series she bowled with great discipline, keeping the openers quiet in the powerplay. Although she only picked up two wickets, her series economy rate of 6.53 is evidence enough of her accuracy and consistency.

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Whether India are keen to pick a third seamer who is quick, but slightly less consistent, in Vastrakar, or whether they go with the more reliable Reddy is the question. Both seamers are capable with the bat – the former much more powerful, with a proven record at the highest level.

Will Vastrakar’s speed win over Reddy’s accuracy?

The spinner: turn or temperament?

Aside from the indefatigable Jhulan Goswami, Poonam Yadav is India’s only bowling superstar. With 170 international wickets to her credit and a Grade A contract under her belt, Yadav is often an automatic pick when it comes to the India XI. However, a wicketless series against South Africa followed by two domestic games which yielded one wicket, means her place could be under scrutiny.

With the surface in Bristol unlikely to provide much assistance to the spinners, India will have to figure out whether they want their spinner to be someone who can hold one end up, or a bowler who is constantly hunting for wickets and could concede a few runs.

India spinners Ekta Bisht (L) and Poonam Yadav © Women's CricZone

If they choose the former, the diminutive Ekta Bisht is likely their best choice. The left-arm spinner, who played the 2014 Test in Wormsley picked up three wickets, and did a fantastic job of drying the runs up at her end. In 38 overs, she went at only 1.15 runs an over, allowing the seamers to utilise the conditions and attack at the other end.

However, England’s propensity to play the sweep could mean they handle Bisht a lot better than they did back in 2014.

Do India pick their more reputed bowler in Yadav or will Bisht sneak in to the final XI?

Women’s CricZone’s predicted XI: Shafali Verma, Smriti Mandhana, Punam Raut, Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur, Deepti Sharma, Taniya Bhatia (wk), Pooja Vastrakar, Shikha Pandey, Jhulan Goswami, Ekta Bisht.