Murmurs of change and talk of a new direction could be heard on the Bengaluru campus of the National Cricket Academy in the month of June as the Indian women’s team tried to find its feet after the retirement of its war-worn leader, Mithali Raj.
As the old guard gave way to the new, the cricketers huddled together to discuss a new, bolder strategy — one that would help them handle crunch situations. With a month left for the Commonwealth Games, the players knew that they needed a solid strategy.
They discussed a few aspects of the game with V. V. S. Laxman, the NCA director and one of India’s legendary batters, and then on a cool and rainy June evening, they decided to have a meeting. It was more of an impromptu affair, with the coaches and the support staff staying away.
Unlike regular meetings, Harmanpreet Kaur, the captain, did not start the conversation. Instead, she asked the younger members of the team to set a roadmap for the future. By then, the players had a few days of training at the NCA and they knew that ahead of a packed international calendar, a lot of changes were needed.
The scars of the World Cup defeat were still fresh and soon after the meeting began, the players unanimously agreed that going forward, clarity of roles would be the key.
While seniors — Harmanpreet and Smriti Mandhana — listened in, Pooja Vastrakar raised her hand and said that the team lacked ‘killer instinct’ and it was important to play aggressive cricket, even in tricky situations.
As Vastrakar explained the need for aggressiveness on the field, the team set itself a goal — to work on the weak links and ensure darna nahi hai (not to be afraid). “Earlier, the seniors would normally advise the team on how to tackle various situations. But now, it was good to see the youngsters taking the onus and coming up with plans,” Harmanpreet said.
By the end of the meeting, the team knew what it had to do on the tour of Sri Lanka and at the Commonwealth Games. And, it was decided that over the next few days, after every training session, the team would spend time preparing a plan to play firebrand cricket. “Whenever we would train or practice, we would try to create that mahaul (environment),” Harmanpreet said, adding, “We keep talking about that killer instinct and we are constantly working on that…”
Featuring in the Commonwealth Games for the first time, the Women in Blue almost put theory into practice as the team reached the final of the event, before going down to Australia by nine runs.
After restricting Australia to 161 for eight, India lost openers Mandhana and Shafali Verma early, but a 96-run stand between captain Harmanpreet and Jemimah Rodrigues put India in command. However, a precipitous collapse saw the team lose eight wickets for just 34 runs as the middle-order and the tail crumbled under pressure.
It was heartbreak for the Indian fans with another defeat in the final. The fearless brand of cricket that was on display until the semifinal against England, went out of the window. Some decisions — especially concussion substitute Yastika Bhatia being sent in to bat at No. 8 when wickets were tumbling — were baffling. As Jemimah and Harmanpreet fell in quick succession, there was no Plan B from the decision-makers on how to close the game.
All those errors hurt India in the end.
As Meg Lanning & Co. celebrated their gold medal victory, Indian fans looked for a silver lining. Those who follow the game closely believe that despite a defeat in the final, there are some positives for India to take home.
“For quite some time, the players have been talking about improving fielding. In the CWG, it was clear that they had worked quite hard on that. Some of the catches that we took were outstanding. In a format like this, fitness plays a key role and I definitely feel that the efforts are showing on the field,” Hemlata Kala, former chairperson of the national selection committee, told Sportstar.
Kala was the head of the national selection committee when India reached the finals in the 2017 World Cup and the T20 World Cup in 2020. Having seen the team come a long way, the former India international believes that while it is important to look at the positives, the team needs to come up with a plan to ensure that it doesn’t falter in the final.
“Earlier, our average score would be anywhere between 125-130, but now, we are consistently going at around 160, that’s a positive sign. But the main point is we need to focus on winning the big matches — like the final. The players need to go back and think why they are being defeated in every final. That’s the major question we need to address,” Kala said. “We are getting closer to achieving success, but for that we have to understand why we are not able to win big games…”
Yet another ‘so-near-yet-so-far’ moment in the final proved that there is a need to regroup, count on the positives and work on the weak links.
Soon after the final came a tweet from Sourav Ganguly. “Congratulations to the Indian women’s team for winning silver… But they will go home disappointed as it was their game tonight…”
In his long and illustrious career as the India captain, Ganguly had realised that there, indeed, were many a slip between the cup and the lip — perhaps the biggest of them all was the 2003 World Cup final against Australia.
In that tournament, Ganguly’s men had lost only two games — both against Australia and that final afternoon at Wanderers was a heartbreak for Indian cricket. But in a way, it also set a roadmap for the future of Indian cricket. Youngsters came in, the team went through transition and it took just four more years to clinch a World T20 and eventually the World Cup in 2011.
Similarly, for the Women in Blue, too, this CWG could be an eye-opener. The continuous choking of the middle-order, backing the right players and most importantly, long-term planning are some of the areas that need to be worked on. But the question remains whether the team is willing to address the elephant in the room.
“The CWG has shown us that we have improved a lot in the fielding department, but it is a must to work on our tactics. The team needs to analyse where it is going wrong in terms of tactics in the big games, which eventually is hurting,” V. R. Vanitha, a former India international, said.
“This is perhaps the best team we had fielded and it played really well throughout, but losing another final hurts. It is important to work on the finer details and make sure that you work on those aspects and plan your game accordingly. Having a long-term plan, giving longer ropes to players is the key,” she said.
A large section of the fans believe that the lack of Women’s IPL is hurting the team as several players are inexperienced. But Vanitha does not believe that only WIPL could solve the problems. “The domestic structure needs to be more vibrant and there should be more game time for players, because the more you play, the quicker you learn from your mistakes,” Vanitha said. “Much before the IPL happened, men’s cricket thrived because of a solid domestic set-up and IPL only enhanced it. Similarly, asking for a WIPL won’t be the only solution. We need more game time…”
“Look at the men’s team, they can put behind a a defeat and come back stronger soon because they play regularly and can work on the errors. For the women’s team too, more preparation and game time is the need of the hour…”
Vanitha’s statement does make a lot of sense.
Before flying out to Birmingham, the Indian team had played just three T20Is (and a three-match ODI series) against Sri Lanka. Surprisingly, Sneh Rana — a key member of the unit — was rested for that series. Coming into the CWG, it was not easy for the team to play fearless cricket against some of the top teams.
It took some time for the team to get the combination right.
While the first group game against Australia was a learning experience, the side came back stronger with victories against Pakistan and Barbados to storm into the semifinals. Things got better until the collapse in the final; whenever one player failed, she knew that her other colleagues would finish the job. If Mandhana or Shafali struggled to get going, Jemimah or Deepti rose to the occasion.
Those following women’s cricket closely believe that this ‘never give up’ approach was the reason behind the Indian team’s entry into the final. That approach not only brought the team closer to success, but also helped the cricketers play freely.
Jemimah had scored 36 not out, three and 33 in three T20I innings against Sri Lanka last month and there were still concerns on whether she would be able to show consistency in the CWG.
Batting at No. 5 against Australia in the opening game, Jemimah scored just 11 runs, but once she was elevated to No. 3 — against Barbados and England — the Mumbai batter proved her mettle with unbeaten scores of 56 and 44 respectively. She batted on despite a hand injury, echoing the sentiments of the team — Darna nahi hai…” Even in the final, Jemimah’s run-a-ball-33 brought India closer to achieving its target — almost!
It was a similar story for Sneh and Deepti, too.
In the semifinal against England, Sneh remained calm and composed and defended 14 runs in the final over to guide India home. Though she did not have enough game time before reaching Birmingham, Sneh battled past the odds and found her mojo in crunch moments. In the group stage match against Pakistan, she bagged two quick wickets to help the team gain the upper hand.
At one stage in the semifinal, England required 33 off 24 balls with seven wickets in hand. It seemed that India was treading on a slippery slope, but spinners Sneh and Deepti delivered just when it mattered. In the 2017 World Cup final, India had gone down against England. Five years later, a young and confident Indian outfit made sure that it took sweet revenge against the Nat Sciver-led side.
But all that changed in the final as the Indian middle-order collapsed.
“The way the team fought, we are proud of them. The average age of the team is 22 to 24 and the girls showed determination today,” Jemimah said after the final. “After the game, we had a huddle and that’s what was spoken. We looked at each other’s faces and we were proud of the way we fought. Let’s keep our chin up, winning and losing is part of the game, but I promise this team has a lot of potential and it’s going to do wonders in the future,” she said.
Former India captain Sudha Shah, too, hopes that the team achieves success in the future and believes that it is important to head in the right direction.
“There is definitely a lot of talent, but in the end, it is important that you win the major tournaments. It is important that we understand what’s stopping us from winning the final, whether it’s a mental block and address it,” Shah said.
Shah toured with the Indian team as a national selector when it reached the final of the T20 World Cup in Australia two years ago. Having seen the players closely, she admits that expectations were high from the team after that fascinating win against England. “There were a few positives. With Renuka (Singh Thakur) improving so much, I think now she needs a good fast-bowling partner from the other end. Even Jemimah stamped her class, so there is plenty to look forward to,” she said.
In the last five years, India reached the final of two ICC women’s events, but failed to clinch the title on both occasions.
These days, the Indian players often talk of imbibing the Australian fighting spirit on the field. Perhaps the defeat in the final would allow Harmanpreet & Co. to sit back and ask themselves some serious questions about what they want to achieve in the coming years, because as the adage goes, ‘ you never win the silver, you only lose the gold!’