Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma shut opening blues in pink-ball Test

Gomesh Shanmugavelayutham
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Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma shut opening blues in pink-ball Test

Shafali Verma, Smriti Mandhana © Getty Images

first-ever pink-ball training session only a couple of days before the Test match. And yet, the Indian openers, Smriti Mandhana and Shafali Verma came out and put together a solid partnership in conditions that were alien to them.

The pitch had a fair bit of grass, and Australia skipper Meg Lanning won the toss and opted to bowl. Australia had four debutants - two out-and-out pacers, a fast-bowling allrounder and a spinner. India went in with two spinners and three seamers, and none of their top five could bowl. A good start from the openers was crucial for the tourists to have a chance to compete in the Test match.

The hosts were without the services of Megan Schutt, their premium pacer, and were fielding what could be termed as their most inexperienced pace attack in recent times. Ellyse Perry, who was still trying to find her rhythm with the ball, led the bowling attack. In the lead up to the Test, she had worked alongside bowling coach Ben Sawyer and men's cricketer Mitchell Starc on her bowling. And, both Darcie Brown and Stella Campbell had impressed in the ODIs and were all set to make their mark in Test cricket.

With Perry struggling against left-handers in the ODIs, Mandhana took first strike. Perry started slightly back-of-a-length, trying to find the right length against the left-hander. Her fourth delivery was on a good length, in the line of the sixth stump, swinging it into the left-hander. Mandhana shouldered arms, and the ball almost kissed the off-stump on its way to finding Alyssa Healy's gloves. She erred in her lines over the next couple of deliveries, straying on Mandhana's pads, and the left-hander retained the strike in the next over.

Mandhana was up against Brown, who troubled her opening partner with short-pitched deliveries in the ODIs. The 18-year-old stuck to her strength, trying to hit the pitch hard on the shorter length, only for it to backfire as Mandhana pulled her in front of square with authority for a boundary. When Brown compensated with a full-length delivery outside off-stump, the southpaw sliced her through gully for another boundary.

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Mandhana played out the rest of Brown's over, and Verma had to face Perry at the other end. Against the right-hander, Perry was on the money with her lines, swinging the ball away from Verma. The 17-year-old was batting on a leg-stump guard, shuffling across to off-stump just before the ball was delivered and planting the front-foot across, pushing at deliveries with her hands.

It took only four deliveries for Perry to get an outside edge from Verma, but the ball went just wide of Lanning at first slip, a tough chance that the Australian skipper could not hold on to, and the opener had stolen a single. Perry bowled on Mandhana's pads, and she duly flicked Perry for another boundary.

Verma played fifteen off the next eighteen deliveries safely. She was still shuffling across early and backing away when Brown pitched it short, getting squared up once in a while. Looking at her partner struggle against the new ball, Mandhana took up the mantle. She smashed four boundaries in the eighth over, the fourth from Brown, who continued with her back-of-length tactic against the left-hander. The first was a cut behind square, leading Lanning to add a backward point alongside the gully fielder. Brown compensated with a full delivery, and Mandhana sliced it in the air between the two fielders. A pull shot and a cover drive followed as Mandhana raced to 33 runs from 28 balls. She got another boundary off Perry in the next over, this time an outside edge through the slip cordon.

Between the overs seven and 13, Mandhana farmed the strike, guarding her partner, leaving Verma to face only 12 of the 36 deliveries. India had gone past 50, with Mandhana scoring 30 runs in that period. The Australians missed a trick by not trying to come around the wicket against the left-hander. Them sticking to the back-of-a-length strategy for Verma backfired against Mandhana. She cruised towards her third Test half-century in just 51 balls, with a crunching cover drive off Tahlia McGrath.

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Meanwhile, Verma had got her eye in, picking up back-to-back fours in the Campbell over - a short and wide delivery cut over point, the next delivery on the pads, and Verma guided it to the fine-leg boundary. The Indian openers had successfully negotiated 15 overs from the Australian pacers, scoring at a healthy rate of 4.66 runs per over.

Mid-way through the first session, the Indian openers had forced Lanning to bring on Sophie Molineux to control the run rate, and it worked. In the next ten overs, the hosts gave away just 23 runs, with Molineux and McGrath bowling nine overs in this period. There were a couple of dropped chances off Molineux for Verma, but the opener could not capitalise.

The lull in the scoring rate caught up to Verma as she tried to take on the left-arm spinner and was caught at mid-off by McGrath for 31 runs from 64 balls. Mandhana was batting at 57 off 87 balls when Punam Raut joined her in the middle. The young Indian openers missed out on their second 100-run stand in three innings by seven runs, but it is only fair to say that they had done their job.

On a day where the odds were stacked against them, in conditions that they were not familiar with, Verma and Mandhana came out and made a statement, putting India in a comfortable position. The onus is now on the experienced middle-order to take them to a big total.