Women's World Cup: India ready to win a maiden title

India has stalwarts in Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, leaders in their own departments and among the best in the world. They are likely preparing to play their last World Cup, and perhaps the winds are changing to allow for a realistic shot at the first title.

Winning the World Cup, skipper Mithali Raj feels, would revolutionise Indian women's cricket. She would be giving it her all to win the title in what might be her last World Cup.   -  VIVEK BENDRE

The possibility of a maiden title looms as India embarks on another World Cup campaign. In a journey distinct from their male counterparts, India’s women have at best finished as runners-up in the eight World Cups they have participated in. They have been by and large categorised as ‘dark horses’ in comparison with England, Australia, and even West Indies, in the international game. Yet, the team has stalwarts in Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, leaders in their own departments and among the best in the world. They are likely preparing to play their last World Cup, and perhaps the winds are changing to allow for a realistic shot at the first title.

Leading up to this marquee event, the signs have been encouraging. In the last two years, the team has played 20 matches and lost just five. Moreover, it won a quadrangular series in South Africa, and went undefeated in the Women’s World Cup Qualifiers, a tournament that became compulsory for the team for forfeiting a series against Pakistan due to likely political reasons. It defeated powerhouse Australia once in the three One-Day Internationals it played in the period, and whitewashed West Indies – the Women’s World Twenty20 champion – 3-0 at home.

No more is the team dependent on a few individuals. Mithali, who bats in the middle order, has been in prime form of late, but India’s batting has further been augmented by Poonam Raut and relative newcomers in 19-year-old Deepti Sharma and Smriti Mandhana. Deepti and Poonam featured in a 320-run opening partnership last month against Ireland in the Quadrangular series.

Jhulan, who recently became the highest wicket-taker in ODIs, will lead the fast bowling attack in conditions likely to favour seamers. But India also banks heavily on its spinners, as stressed upon by the captain – Mithali – in the press meet before departure for the U.K. Besides Ekta Bisht, the team's leading spinner, India also has Rajeshwari Gayakwad and all-rounder Harmanpreet Kaur among others to fall back on.

Harmanpreet also has hard-hitting abilities in the lower order; she underlined her value in the neck-and-neck battle in the final of the Women’s World Cup Qualifiers against South Africa. Scoring an unbeaten 41, she shepherded the faltering lower-order batsmen to help India cross the line. With eight needed off the last two balls of the match, and one wicket remaining, she struck a six and took a brace to seal the title. India’s exposure to pressure situations in the lead-up to the World Cup is a factor that could be decisive in the event.

Not only have India’s women been on a winning track, they have also honed their white-ball skills abroad. Harmanpreet and Smriti played the Big Bash League last season, and their experience of big crowds and playing alongside Australia’s big talents also augurs well for India.

One sobering realisation for India would be the prospect of negotiating English playing conditions. The county grounds at Derby, Taunton, Bristol and Leicester may be very different from what they have experienced in the last couple of years. India may have to bring forth the experience of its 2014 tour of England, and utilise it smartly in the tournament. Facing England, the favourite with the home advantage, in its opening match will be a daunting task.

But cricket is full of stories of teams beating the odds. Pakistan defied all predictions in the Champions Trophy last week, finishing as winner after beginning the tournament as the bottom-ranked team. In Mithali’s words, a title triumph could bring ‘revolution’ to the women’s game in India. For Indian women, there can always be a first time, especially when two of their stalwarts are likely playing their final World Cups.

Squad: Mithali Raj (c), Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Veda Krishnamurthy, Mona Meshram, Poonam Raut, Deepti Sharma, Jhulan Goswami, Shikha Pandey, Ekta Bisht, Sushma Verma (wk), Mansi Joshi, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Poonam Yadav, Nuzhat Parween (wk).