“Zor se daal, zor se (Bowl fast)...,” screams Harmanpreet Kaur as Anjali Sarvani gears up to bowl in the nets. The young fast bowler looks at the India captain and answers with a smile: “Haan, didi (yes, didi).”
Sarvani’s next few deliveries are sharp and generate the requisite bounce. She bowls for over 20 minutes. Harmanpreet watches the proceedings and then walks up to her to point out the areas she needs to work on.
This was a windy December evening in Mumbai, the Indian women’s cricket team in the middle of a training session at the Brabourne Stadium during its five-match T20I series against Australia. India lost the series 1-4, but captain Harmanpreet and batting coach Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who doubled up as the acting head coach, tried to make sure every member of the team learned from their mistakes. The idea was to look ahead and gear up for the T20 World Cup in South Africa.
Over the last one month, India has been preparing in earnest for the mega event that begins on February 10. A tri-series in South Africa – involving the home team and the West Indies – in January served as a tune-up event. The conditions there are well-suited for both batters and bowlers to excel.
India has the firepower to go all the way, with solid depth in its batting. Smriti Mandhana, Shafali, Verma, Harmanpreet and Jemimah Rodrigues are all formidable hitters while Deepti Sharma and Radha Yadav are handy lower middle-order batters, but Australia will start as the favourite. The Indian team has in the past choked in crucial moments, so the challenge in yet another ICC event will be to be smarter and calmer in those situations. For the group stage, it finds itself in a tricky Group 2 along with Pakistan, England, Ireland, and the West Indies and it cannot afford a sluggish start.
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With all its prowess in batting, profligacy of the bowlers could prove the team dear. This was its achilles heel during the home series in Australia, with the absence of Pooja Vastrakar due to injury hurting the team’s chances. Vastrakar is now fit and the seasoned Shikha Pandey is back in the squad, considerably strengthening the team. Harmanpreet believes Shikha, who returned to the squad after more than a year, will be invaluable to the side: “She (Pandey) is someone who can swing the ball in the Powerplays and she is experienced in the death overs also.”
The bowlers have been working hard under the watchful eyes of coach Troy Cooley.
Among other teams, England, led by Heather Knight, is one of the favourites to make to the knockouts. England is a strong white-ball team comprising reputed players like Sophia Dunkley, Sophie Ecclestone, Nat Sciver, Lauren Winfield-Hill and Danni Wyatt, and has been consistent in major events. Pakistan, meanwhile, will depend on seasoned professionals Bismah Maroof, Nida Dar and Javeria Khan, to make an impact. There won’t be any time to ease into the event as its first match is the all-important one against arch-rival India (on February 12). Pakistan has a bunch of talented and experienced cricketers but it has so far struggled to master the T20 format so it remains to be seen whether it puts up a fight against the top dogs. Bowling remains its stronger suit, while the middle order needs a bit of fine-tuning.
Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are the teams in Group One. Australia will be the favourite to win the title, especially now that Meg Lanning is back as captain. The side will be hoping to use its warm-up match against India on February 6 to familiarise itself with the conditions.
Been there, done that
Australia knows how to handle pressure on the big stage, having dominated women’s cricket across formats. It won the ODI World Cup last year and clinched the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, too. The batting line-up comprising Alyssa Healy, Beth Mooney, Tahlia McGrath and Ellyse Perry, is redoubtable.
McGrath, Mooney and Perry had a fruitful tour of India, and the fact that Perry returned to form after being sidelined from the T20 format for while is indeed a huge plus.
Australia appears to be the most balanced side in the tournament. It will be a surprise if it doesn’t make the final. “We have been able to work on some different roles for different players, and where that might fit within the side, and we’ve got some really good options and depth in a lot of areas. So that is something that we’ve done really well over the past few years in particular, adjusting really quickly to the conditions and what’s required,” Lanning said.
It begins its campaign against New Zealand on February 11. The White Ferns, not among the favourites, is nonetheless a confident team ahead of the marquee event. Sophie Devine, the captain, won’t play the practice matches due to stress fracture on her left foot, but she believes that the team’s preparations have been good.
New Zealand’s best performances in the Women’s T20 World Cup have been runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2010. It made an early exit – in the group stage – in 2020, but captain Devine, who has featured in all seven T20 World Cups so far, is confident. “Our experienced players such as Suzie Bates and Melie (Amelia) Kerr are going to be key players but I’m really excited by our young guns coming through such as Fran Jonas and Georgia Plimmer – both are playing at the U-19 World Cup and will certainly be the future of the White Ferns,” she said.
Bangladesh, the winner of the 2018 Asia Cup, will be led by Nigar Sultana Joty. The team will be hoping to pull off a few surprises and compete well against South Africa and Sri Lanka, who are yet to announce their squads.
All eyes will be on Australia, England and India.
Teams can do with a bit of motivation during big tournaments, and the India’s U-19 World Cup win seems to have come at just the right time. It remains to be seen whether it provides that extra push to end India’s quest for its first senior ICC title.