India's road to the World Cup - of equal expectations and unequal tools

It will be a challenge for the Indian women's cricket team to stay motivated with just a one-off Test against England and a mini T20 Challenge to look forward to.

Gaps between tournaments is no new phenomenon in women’s cricket, the coronavirus pandemic widened it.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

March 20 was a unique day in Indian cricket fixtures. The men’s and women’s T20 sides were playing at the same time. Virat Kohli was plotting England’s downfall in the series-decider in Ahmedabad, while the girls were trying to start afresh against South Africa in Lucknow.

The impact of the scheduling was visible in the streaming figures; according to Hotstar estimates, nearly 5 million fans watched the men’s game. The women’s contest peaked at 18,000 and a little beyond.

The women’s team returned to action after 378 days — the last appearance being the T20 World Cup final against Australia in March 2020 — but players such as Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, who only play the one-dayers, were out since November 2019.

Gaps between tournaments is no new phenomenon in women’s cricket, the coronavirus pandemic widened it.

The world plunged into lockdowns of different magnitude. Women’s sport crawled its way out of the COVID blackhole  but India did not have any action until 2021.

Alongside the Indian Premier League, the Women’s T20 Challenge — three teams, three ‘group’ games and a final — took place. It provided a few hours of game time to the girls who were out for six months.

Thereafter, the men’s team took on Australia Down Under in three ODIs, three T20Is and four Tests and also hosted England at home in four Tests before the women returned for the first time post the COVID-induced shutdown against South Africa.

Blank calendar ahead

In men’s cricket, the post match press conferences are already buzzing with questions on strategy leading to the T20 World Cup. The women are also heading to a 50-over World Cup in New Zealand early next year but with a completely different set of questions in mind as a blank calendar stands ahead.

Besides the IPL, Kohli’s side has three ODIs against England, the ICC World Test Championship final against New Zealand in June followed by a tour of England. As per the BCCI calendar, the women will feature in the mini T20 Challenge and a one-off Test against England.

READ| Indian women look to avoid series whitewash in final T20I

The squad for the ODI series against South Africa did not feature seasoned players Shikha Pandey, Ekta Bisht, Veda Krishnamurthy, Pooja Vastrakar and Taniya Bhatia, among others. The selectors wanted to test the bench strength as there were no other tournaments to assess the players.

Krishnamurthy, Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Jemimah Rodrigues got some game time between December 2020 and January 2021 thanks to independent club efforts from former players. Cricket was played in the Sheela Sridhar Rangaswamy memorial inter-academy tournament and the India Nippon Cup organised by the Falcon Cricket Club, both in Karnataka.

Delayed scheduling

The BCCI had sanctioned the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the senior women’s ODI tournament on January 30.

Hazare Trophy began on February 20, while the schedule for the women’s games was released six days later, clashing with the South African itinerary. The Board struggled to find a venue to host the Proteas. Kerala was the preferred choice but a military recruitment drive in Thiruvananthapuram left the series stranded. Bengaluru was discussed as a potential option before the Ekana Stadium in Lucknow was finalised.

Mithali's girls were going up against a South African side that was fresh from a T20I series win and a 3-0 ODI win over Pakistan, besides domestic games. It did not field three of its best players — Dane van Niekerk, Chloe Tyron and Masabata Klaas — yet thumped India 4-1 in the ODI series.

READ| India Women vs South Africa Women: It's bitter pillow to swallow, says Mandhana

On the other hand, the Indian team barely had four days to practise before the first ODI. No wonder Jemimah found it difficult to recover from the poor run of form that plagued her during the T20 World Cup. She recorded scores of 0(2), 9(20), 1(11) in the ODI series.

Jemimah slogged out a 27-ball 30 in the first T20I and a 15-ball 16 in the second. She was also rested midway in the ODI series and Priya Punia got an opportunity to step up. She managed 32(51) and 18(25). India depended almost entirely on Harmanpreet Kaur for the big hitting, with no one else to share the burden of accelerating in the final 10 overs.

Punam Raut was the standout player with 263 runs in five innings at an average of 87.66.

Toothless attack

Another big question was also the absence of Shafali Verma in the ODI setup. Eleven months before a World Cup in a series earmarked for experimentation, it was unfortunate that the 17-year-old promising hard-hitter was left out.

The bowling attack, barring Jhulan, lacked steam; especially the spinners. Poonam Yadav — the highest wicket taker in the T20 World Cup — was wicketless in all four games she played in the ODI series. She was a tad expensive in a few games, adding to Gayakwad’s workload and creating a need for Harmanpreet to chip in as well.

With eight wickets in four games which includes a four-for, Jhulan was the pick of the bowlers. Left-arm seamer Monica Patel made her ODI debut but went wicketless in two games. Right-arm seamer Mansi Joshi, who made a comeback, picked up three wickets in three outings.

W.V. Raman, head coach of the Indian team, also batted for more game time to cause a turnaround. “In terms of what transpired in this series, it's very simple: the girls lacked the game time and they are obviously short in terms of the mental stamina and cricketing fitness,” he said. 

Mithali had highlighted the necessity of mental preparation earlier while discussing her training regime.

The nerves were on full display in India’s body language on the field. This was perhaps the difference between the two sides as South Africa pipped India in a close contest in the second T20I to seal the series.

As Harleen Deol later revealed, the side had just one catching session under the lights before this fixture. The Indian wicketkeeping options were also ordinary, forcing many to remember Bhatia’s swift reflexes.

India cricketer Harleen Deol during a training session.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

And India played the second T20I barely 24 hours after the first. On the morning of the second T20I, the do-or-die contest, stand-in-skipper Mandhana was doubtful as she had injured her ankle. Harmanpreet was already out due to injury.

The leadership crisis is another area to look at: if there comes a day comes when Mithali, Jhulan, Smriti and Harman are not available, who steps up? While a potential tour of England is being worked out between the boards, what happens to this side between now and then?

The spectators expect results. They cheer Mithali for her milestones but they also discuss that her strike-rate is perhaps not up to the mark, forgetting the bulk of the repair work she does as a middle-order batsman. They forget the gritty fifties and the nerves of steel. Mithali scored 210 runs at an average of 70 against the Proteas.

For the whole contingent, it will be a challenge to stay motivated if the calendar stays blank for too long.