India return to Australia to take the next big step

21Feb 2020
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
India return to Australia to take the next big step

WITHIN hours of announcing her retirement from T20Is in September last year, Mithali Raj picked India's 2016 T20I series win away against Australia as "the point when things started to roll for the Indian team".That 2-1 win marked India's first bilateral series victory over Australia across formats.

The enormity of that result, also India's first win in a T20I series outside the subcontinent, cannot be overstated. Australia had won three T20 World Cups in the lead-in to that season, and were eyeing a "four-peat" in India in two months' time. India, meanwhile, were touring Australia after seven years, and had only five players - Jhulan Goswami, Punam Raut, Harmanpreet Kaur, Thirush Kamini and Raj - in their 15-member T20I squad with any prior experience of playing in Australia.

To many followers of the game, India's win against Australia in the 2017 ODI World Cup semi-final is the highest point in Indian women's cricket. To Raj, as with many others who featured in the 2017 win as well as the tour of Australia the previous year, that T20I series victory remains the barometer by which India judge their ability to marry potential with fearlessness.

In the four years since, India haven't been to the MCG, and both Goswami and Raj, two of India's most experienced players, have bowed out of T20Is. Now, at the 2020 T20 World Cup, the MCG will host the final of the tournament, meaning India have an opportunity to play there for the first time since that watershed 2016 tour - in their first 20-over world tournament with both Goswami and Raj absent.

The first, and potentially stiffest, challenge in India's road to the MCG, and their pursuit of a maiden world title, comes in the form of a rival that has given them two of their sweetest victories ever. Much of how their league-stage campaign goes will be determined by the outcome of the tournament opener against Australia, and also give us an idea of whether captain Harmanpreet's hopes of playing Australia in the final on March 8 - "if we play Australia, that [the record of 90,000 spectators] will be easily possible" - could come true or not.

India may take heart from the fact that seven players from the 2016 T20I series win are part of their World Cup squad and that they are the only side to have beaten Australia once in both the two latest world tournaments (in the 2017 World Cup semi-final and in the league stage of the 2018 T20 World Cup). However, overcoming them on Friday will require resilience that appears to be lacking among most of their batters.

In their most recent meeting, in the final of the tri-series, India squandered a strong start from opener Smriti Mandhana because of yet another middle-order collapse, a long-standing issue that the team hasn't been able to solve despite the appointment of head coach WV Raman in December 2018.

It's not just the fragility of their line-up beyond the top four - Mandhana, Shafali Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues and Harmanpreet - that might hurt India against Australia. A failure from Mandhana, such as the one in India's only warm-up game - against West Indies - might coincide with duds down the order. In that case, to expect their bowling attack to replicate the successful defence of an under-110 score, like in that practice match, against the strong Australian line-up might be far-fetched.

The form of the returning left-arm spinner Rajeshwari Gayakwad, who finished atop the wicket-takers' chart in the tri-series, and fit-against wristspinner Poonam Yadav augurs well. Three frontline spinners, and Harmanpreet doubling up as the fourth spinner, will leave them room to accommodate pace spearhead Shikha Pandey and a second quick - Arundhati Reddu or Pooja Vastrakar. But the efficacy of their spin attack might also make a five-pronged spin attack and a sole medium-pacer in Pandey a viable option.

The cracks in India's batting run far too deep to inspire confidence that they won't stutter even when there's seemingly no chance of stuffing up. The most chastening of their recent epic chokes came in the third T20I in Guwahati last year: India, chasing 120 against England, needed three off the last over, but ended losing by one run.

That said, India have personnel whose personal bests (Harmanpreet's 171 not out in the 2017 World Cup semi-final and Mandhana's 83 in the 2018 World Cup league game) can be good enough to set up match-winning totals or make record chases moderately easy. In the recent tri-series, India completed their highest successful chase of 174 thanks to Mandhana's 55 and Verma's quick 49. Back in the opening game of the 2016 series, in Adelaide, it was Harmanpreet's 31-ball 46. Alyssa Healy later said that India had "showed us how to play T20 cricket today". Five months on, Harmanpreet earned a maiden contract for an Indian player at the WBBL, with offers from various franchises subsequently coming in for Mandhana and Veda Krishnamurthy and even the teenaged Rodrigues last season.

Since then, Harmanpreet and Mandhana have gone on to play three and two WBBL seasons respectively, to varying degrees of success. Harmanpreet's maiden WBBL season, where she was adjudged her side Sydney Thunder's Player of the Tournament, built on the epochal 171 not out and her 103 against New Zealand in the 2018 T20 World Cup opener, an innings of similar degree of belligerence. In the 19 T20I innings since, though, she hasn't made a half-century.

"Each and every member of the squad has a part to play and we need to give our all to win any game [at the World Cup]," wrote Harmanpreet in her column for the ICC two weeks ago. "I'm just hoping I can step up and win some games for my team when they need me."

Mandhana, meanwhile, between sustaining an injury in her first season (for Brisbane Heat in 2016-17) and an up-and-down campaign one year later in her second dig (for Hobart Hurricanes in 2018-19), has gone on to establish herself as one of the most imposing, consistent batters across formats.

"This is my third T20I World Cup… and yes, every World Cup has been bigger than the previous one," Mandhana said of the hype around the build-up to tournament, especially to Friday's opener. "Expectations work both ways. For me as a player, if people expect something from me, I feel good about it and I take it as a responsibility. We have to look at the main departments we need to focus in, not the expectations. I don't think anyone is nervous about it."

Those two, and Verma and Rodrigues, could well make the difference between victory and defeat for India, not just against Australia but through the World Cup. There is a potent, spin-heavy bowling attack too, but it might come down to those four batters when the going gets tough, and even otherwise. If they fire, India are a better team. If they don't, well, fans of the team would hope it doesn't come to that. AGENCIES