Taniya Bhatia after scoring her maiden half-century in her 2nd ODI. ©SLC
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As the sun started to lean towards the Indian Ocean, the Indian fielders shaded their eyes. They were trying to not see the defeat that was hurtling towards them. Eyes squinted as they looked into the sun to watch a few lusty sixes from the Sri Lankan tail. 219 runs they had put up while batting, a number whose inadequacy they knew well: that was the score they had made in the final of the 2017 World Cup, where they fell nine runs short of England’s total.

There players in this XI were less familiar with 219 than the others: Dayalan Hemalatha, Mansi Joshi, and Taniya Bhatia. They weren’t on the Lord’s pitch when Anya Shrubsole claimed that last wicket, they weren’t one of the XI players on whom the affections of a nation were poured, as well as the attention. They carried no sillages in their minds, no ‘if-only’ moments. And it was these three that helped India win by seven runs, nearly the same margin they lost by last July.

Bhatia took the stage earliest and was greeted by disarray, not applause. India were 66 for 4 in 22.3 overs. They had lost their best batter (catching practice to point), their comeback-queen (bowled through the gate), their best all-rounder (well set, to a poor ball) and their talisman (yet another dismissal against pace). But Mithali Raj was still there, as solid as the Galle Fort, and moving only a little faster (25 off 71).

Later, Bhatia would say she had a clear mind when she took guard. What was clear was that she had was a loose body. You could see it in her defensive strokes, which cushioned the ball instead of blocking it, allowing her to steal singles from dot balls. She dropped ones, nurdled twos and stroked the odd boundary, stitching together the first 50-partnership of the game with her captain. The two took India to 115 in 35 overs, creating the first ebb in what was till then a disciplined Sri Lankan wave.

From 26 in 36, Bhatia went to 48 in 51 by the end of the powerplay. Glorious shots off the pace bowlers aided her acceleration, clearing mid-off and cover, none of the cross-batted riff-raff that has betrayed her in the past. By then, Mithali had departed for a critical 52. Enter Hemalatha. She borrowed Bhatia’s pace, as well as the fearless mindset. She dared to take on the boundary even with long on and long off waiting, a straight-driven six the result.

Bhatia was out for 68 (66 balls), caught behind in the 44th over, just when thoughts of a century on debut were germinating in the minds of onlookers. Hemalatha (35 off 31) added 37 quick runs with Shikha Pandey. Both were finally dismissed in a helter-skelter last over that halted India at 219 when they should have got more. Where have we seen that before?

After lunch, Joshi put her name on the scorecard first with a wicket in the fifth over. Two more early wickets fell, but as the pitch ripened under the afternoon sun, balls from spin and pace alike slid off it and onto Sri Lankan bats. Opener and captain Chamari Athapaththu played coy till about the 27th over, then seemed to switch into the T20 mode. From 83 for 3, Sri Lanka’s total swelled to 129 by the 35th overs, aided by Shashikala Siriwardena’s laborious 49 (90).

But the batting powerplay sometimes works for the bowling side, simply because the batters think they have to play differently. Siriwardena ran herself out on it’s first ball, the second of three run outs that Sri Lanka sustained. When Pandey removed Athapaththu (57 off 95) in the next over, the chase should have been dead. But the lower order resisted the inevitable, and almost found the exceptional. Nilakshi de Silva (31 off 19) hit leg-spinner Poonam Yadav for two towering sixes, bringing the target down to just 31 off 36 with three wickets in hand.  

So Mithali turned back to pace, and Joshi found the leading edge with her first ball. Bhatia collected the swerving projectile, ignoring the doubts that chatter in the mind when the ball goes sky high. Fittingly, the game ended by her gloves, a stumping in the 49th over giving India the series.

For India, it was a batting card of two halves. The top was familiar; wobbles after the best batter is out cheaply. But Bhatia’s rebuttal of the situation and her improvement in shot selection was revelatory. Here was a 20-year old, in her first international innings, showing her elders the skills and intent India needs from them. Timely, since the last fifty by an Indian wicketkeeper came five years ago. Hemalatha’s innings, also her first, was less fluent but equally impressive and creates serious competition for the mercurial Veda Krishnamurthy. No taut sinews, no frazzled gray matter; the finish to the innings was commanding, not the expected scramble. There will be failures and sterner examinations, but the raw material is there. India found two more points and an away series win, but they may have found much more.

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