“I can’t think of a better display from an opening partnership, men or women, for a long, long time,” said Emily Drumm, former New Zealand captain-turned-commentator. India were sitting pretty on 166 for no loss in the 30th over, with Smriti Mandhana hurtling towards her fourth ODI century, batting on 88, and Jemimah Rodrigues with her maiden ODI fifty, on 72. The pair had just surpassed Australia’s Leah Poulton and Shelly Nitschke— who shared an unbeaten 163-run opening stand in Melbourne in 2010— to record the highest-ever first-wicket partnership in ODIs against New Zealand. They would go on to share a 190-run stand — the third-highest partnership for any wicket in ODIs against New Zealand — that laid the foundation to India’s nine-wicket thrashing of the hosts in the first game in Napier on Thursday (January 24).
Ahead of the chase, there were questions as to whether the left-handed Deepti Sharma or right-handed Rodrigues would partner Mandhana at the top of the order. It was Deepti who had been pencilled in alongside Mandhana, but India chose to go with the more problem creating left-right combination and pushed Rodrigues to No.1 instead.
The 18-year-old faced up to Lea Tahuhu, arguably the fastest bowler on the women’s circuit, and the nerves were apparent. Her first four balls went something like this:
0.1 overs: Tahuhu to Rodrigues, 119.0 kph. On a good length, middle-off stump, the ball shapes away late and squares up Rodrigues who is comprehensively beaten.
0.2 overs: Tahuhu to Rodrigues, 121.6 kph. Short ball on fourth stump, Rodrigues is pushed on to the back foot, tries to guide the ball past gully, but Sophie Devine puts in a diving save.
0.3 overs: Tahuhu to Rodrigues, 120.3 kph. Short of length, slightly outside off stump. Rodrigues, who is standing a foot outside her crease, tries to pull, but the ball is on to her too quickly, and she only manages to bunt it to mid-on.
0.4 overs: Tahuhu to Rodrigues, 116.7 kph. On a good length, on off stump and shaping away. Rodrigues tentatively pushes on to her front foot and tries to drive. The ball travels uppishly towards Holly Huddleston at mid-off. After a couple of hesitant steps, Rodrigues takes off for a single. Halfway through the run, she realises it was a mistake and puts in a desperate dive. Huddleston’s throw misses. Rodrigues heaves a sigh of relief.
‘Shake it off. Reset,’ she tells herself.
That run out was the only chance Rodrigues would give the New Zealanders over the next 32.2 overs. After she got off the mark, batting seemed to become simple. A push through extra cover off Hannah Rowe, followed by a lovely, flowing cover drive off Tahuhu in the third over and she was off and running. The feet moved more decisively, her calls were louder and more confident, and she pierced the gaps with ease.
Of course, with the ball flying off Mandhana’s bat at the other end, Rodrigues’ job was a tad easier. The Rachael Heyhoe Flint-medallist absolutely climbed into the New Zealand attack, feeding off the loose deliveries they served up. She picked the length quickly, and seemed to have so much time to play the ball. As always, she was strong off the back foot, playing some powerful pull shots, trademark punches through the off-side and delicate late cuts.
Over the last few years, India have become good at finding the boundary, but have often got stuck at one end while trying to do so, accumulating a large number of dot balls in the process. It was almost as if they had only two options in their mind— boundary or dot ball.
On Thursday, however, India’s opening pair picked the gaps with ease, ran hard between the wickets and kept the scoreboard moving at a rapid pace. After the initial flurry of boundaries in the power play, they rotated the strike well, making sure to pick up the ones and twos once the field was spread. They refused to let any of the bowlers settle into a rhythm, choosing their areas, taking on the boundary riders, and looking to pierce the field, rather than pummel the ball. Their 190-run stand came at a run-rate of 5.90, including 18 fours —both hitting an even nine — and three sixes— all off the bat of Mandhana. Only once or twice did India try (and fail) to force the pace, but the erring batters learnt quickly, and went back to milking the bowlers rather than looking for boundaries.
Not only did they handle the pace well, but as opposed to New Zealand, who allowed India’s spinners to dictate terms, Mandhana and Rodrigues used their feet well, forcing the bowlers to constantly change their lengths. They danced down the track, went deep in the crease and used the sweep shot to good effect. Rodrigues even went as far as to try and manipulate the field— using the lap or paddle sweep on a couple of occasions, targeting the vacant fine-leg region, to try and open up a gap elsewhere. Once they got off to a start, the openers refused to take their foot off the pedal.
It was the little things that stood out about their batsmanship, that were the main reasons for India’s convincing win. It was exactly what made the chase so easy.
It was, without doubt, a clinical display of batting, and although New Zealand certainly didn’t bowl as well as they would have wanted to, both Rodrigues and Mandhana almost seemed to be batting on auto-pilot— nothing the bowlers did made a difference. At no point in the 193-run chase did India ever look to be under pressure. They absolutely cantered to a win, barely breaking a sweat. They handed the hosts a thrashing of the highest quality, thanks to a batting master-class of the highest order.
“They punished the bad balls, they chose the right time to attack and defend, and they have taken the pressure element out of the game. That, for me, makes batting easy. No pressure, and then you can easily score runs,” said Drumm on air. It was a simple description of an absolutely magnificent partnership— one that has set the tone for India’s tour, and already ticked one box: India have their little slice of history.