Mithali Raj at the centre as India enter WT20 semifinal after eight years

Sidhanta Patnaik
15 Nov 2018
Mithali Raj at the centre as India enter WT20 semifinal after eight years

Mithali Raj in action. ©ICC

India are through to the semifinals of the World Twenty20 for the first time since 2010 after their 52-run win against Ireland in their third Group B game in Guyana on Thursday (November 15). It’s a massive step up considering they have never been a force to reckon with in the game’s shortest format. As other teams evolved to match to the demands, they slipped, largely stuck in a traditional approach. A revival of sorts – months after failing to make it to the final of the tri-series at home and losing to Bangladesh in the Asia Cup final – is starting to be seen only now, and the timing could not have been better. With ICC using T20Is as a way to popularise the women’s game, the prospect of India finishing on the podium in less than two weeks from now on could have far bigger connotations than just breaking their drought in world events stretching back to 1978 when they first participated in the 50-over World Cup.

India’s success is commercially important for the organisers, but it's not the team management's worry. The real deal begins now. After each of their three wins, Harmanpreet Kaur has insisted that they are yet to produce a complete performance. The last league game against Australia, a team best equipped to handle India’s spinners, will indicate whether India really have it in them to go the distance or not.

The semifinal could be either against Windies, the defending champions, South Africa or England – three teams with strong reputation. That apart, there is the pressure of expectation though Ramesh Powar, the new coach, in all his media interactions has stressed that this young team is empowered to play a fearless brand of cricket and dominate the opposition.

Obviously, India still do not own the complete set of skill-sets needed to be the best in T20Is, but that can only be solved in the long-term. In the here and now, Powar, who took up the role only three months before the tournament, has done whatever possible to create an atmosphere of trust and freedom.

He has given the license to youngsters to go for their strokes, provided enough inputs to bowlers to have alternative situational plans and tried to get the team rid of any inhibition. After the 2017 World Cup final, which India lost by nine runs despite being in a strong position, a lot of players never saw the highlights of the match for a long time. There was too much negative emotion in those final moments for them to rekindle the memories. Powar, though, believed that the team needed to embrace the reality and put the past ghosts behind them in order to carry no baggage going to the Caribbean. Veda Krishnamurthy, in an interaction with Star Sports before the tournament, said that the entire team sat and watched the World Cup final.

With so much mental preparation having gone in to give the team a chance to lift the trophy, India would have liked to stamp their authority against Ireland after being asked to bat first. Here was a chance against a team that is yet to turn professional to expand their batting might with a huge total on the board. But early morning rain meant that the plan could not be executed. Harmanpreet said at the post-match ceremony that she was disappointed with it, but as was seen batting was not easy when the match began. Both Mithali Raj and Smriti Mandhana, the opening pair, said on air that pitch was soft. The ball was stopping and coming, which made stroke-making difficult. Mithali, in fact, said that she expected a “better wicket” in the next game.

The start was slow; only 16 runs coming in the first four overs with Mithali dropped once at square-leg off a full toss from Eimeir Richardson, the offspinner who used the conditions well. The obvious question is could India have gone back to their strategy against New Zealand where Taniya Bhatia opened the instead of Mithali? But then what would have been the opportunity cost? The pitch in the game against New Zealand, which was used for a triple-header, was placid and the team management’s logic was to give Bhatia a chance to use the pace off the surface to put some quick, early runs on the board in a potential quarterfinal. That Bhatia did not click after two boundaries was a different thing. Here against Ireland, the pitch was sluggish and experience was clearly the need of the hour. Had Bhatia got out early, it would have exposed the middle-order.

The maturity of Mithali and Mandhana was at play. They added 51 runs in the last 36 balls of their partnership to take India to 67 at the end of the tenth over when Kim Garth bowled Mandhana, whose attempt to swing at a straight ball lacked execution but definitely not intent. It was the seventh fifty partnership between the duo, making them one of the top opening pairs in the format.

Surely, Mithali could have converted a few full tosses into boundaries, but what stood out in this innings of hers was the way she maneuvered the field to keep the scoreboard moving. It helped her that Jemimah Rodrigues played some bold strokes in their brisk second-wicket stand of 40.

The first shot from Mithali that caught the attention, quite unsurprisingly, was the cover drive off Lara Martiz, the 17-year-old medium pacer, in the penultimate ball of the sixth over. She had already hit a six over long-off against Richardson, who had troubled her initially, in the previous over, but this cover drive was just classical. Lisa Sthalekar on commentary said, “When Mithali Raj plays the cover drive, I don’t think there is any better shot in the game. She stays so still.” Martiz drifted down the legside the next ball, and Mithali latched on to it with another four as India ended the Power Play on 42, adding 26 runs in the fifth and sixth over.

Once again keeping Australia in mind, their Power Play average is approximately 9 as compared to India’s 6.5.

The other thing about this Mithali innings were her deft touches, especially the way she guided two offcutters from Kim Garth to the left of the short third-man fielder on its way to the fence in a space of three balls across two overs.

Her innings was divided into three parts. While she made only four off the first 16 balls, the next 16 balls produced 27 runs. The third set of 24 balls fetched her only 20 runs, as India ended their last five overs with just one six and two fours and finished on 145 for 6 – a good enough total against Ireland, but could be tricky to defend against stronger teams. Mithali did not find the boundary for the last 26 balls of her innings, and later said “playing slower bowlers on slow and dry wicket is difficult”.  She would definitely like to improve the percentage the next time she bats.

Mithali now has 17 half-centuries, the third-most by any batter in T20Is – the last two coming in consecutive innings. She now has five player of the match awards in the format this year. As India prepare for the final stretch of the campaign, they would hope Mithali to extend the count. /codes_iframe