CWC 2022: Mithali Raj at No. 3 gives India flexibility | Crickit
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CWC 2022: Mithali Raj at No. 3 gives India flexibility

BySnehal Pradhan
Mar 15, 2022 06:30 PM IST

The India captain at No. 4 means Harmanpreet Kaur is batting outside her best position

Heather Knight won the World Cup at the first attempt, in her first year as captain. She now leads an England side on the brink of elimination. Mithali Raj just set the record for the most matches captained in World Cup history. She’s still hunting for her white whale. Both will face off in a critical encounter in this World Cup at Tauranga on Wednesday. And both will need to abandon their inflexibility if they are to win.

Mithali Raj plays a shot during the 5th ODI match between New Zealand Women and India Women(ANI) PREMIUM
Mithali Raj plays a shot during the 5th ODI match between New Zealand Women and India Women(ANI)

Good leaders are consistent. They persist with the process, irrespective of results, because that is what creates stability. And stability is the precursor of performance. But an attachment to stability can lead to inflexibility. Some will call this a stubborn streak. It is a thin line, but one that India are standing on.

India captain Raj has batted at No. 4 in 23 out of the 39 games India played between the last World Cup and this one. Even though her record there is outstanding (but then this is Raj, her record everywhere is outstanding), it creates complications for the team. When India use another anchor-type batter at No. 3, Raj at No. 4 and then Harmanpreet Kaur at 5, it means slow moving traffic in the middle-order. It also means that Kaur bats outside her best position. At No. 5, Kaur averages 29.8. At No. 4: more than 40. 

CWC 2022: The importance of being Sneh Rana

In India’s last game, circumstances forced them to abandon that inflexibility. India opened with two left handers, and therefore did not persist with Deepti Sharma at No. 3. The coach had accepted that this made it too easy for the oppositions to counter with off-spin. And so Raj came in at No. 3, offering a left-right combination. It is a position that she has not played at regularly since 2018. But the team will benefit if she plays there in the rest of this World Cup, irrespective of who opens (or how). It is the best position for her natural game, which offers consolidation after the fall of a wicket, and acceleration once set.

Knight needs to bowl

Knight has been guilty of the same inflexibility. As a batter, she has been outstanding for England since the last World Cup. Her captaincy too has matured, but in one area, she has let herself down. She has rarely bowled herself as much as she should.

In her first game as captain, back in 2016, Knight took a five-for against Pakistan with her off-spin. But between the 2017 and 2022 World Cups, she bowled only 75 overs in 40 matches. In 20 of those, she didn’t bowl at all. In the rest, she never bowled more than six overs in a game.

This oversight was ruthlessly exposed by Australia in England’s first game this World Cup. With two left-handers in their top five and at least one of those at the crease through the innings, Australia attacked England’s only spinner, left-arm slow Sophie Ecclestone. Ecclestone went wicketless for 77 runs, while Knight did not bowl a single over. England cannot afford the same mistake against India, who have three left handers in the top five.

India’s left-handedness presents a tremendous opportunity to trounce England. Left-handedness is much rarer in women’s cricket than it is in the men’s game, and therefore presents a significant advantage. England, for instance, have no left-handers in their most recent XI. Neither do South Africa. Pakistan have one, West Indies have one, as do New Zealand. Bangladesh didn’t have a left-handed batter in their history until 2020.

England rely heavily on Ecclestone to take wickets in the middle overs, presenting India an opportunity to pressure her. Knight might play off-spinner Charlie Dean, but she has only played 8 ODIs. This sort of situation is one of the reasons why southpaw Yastika Bhatia has pipped Jemimah Rodrigues in the squad. And we haven’t even discussed Smriti Mandhana, who averages more than 50 against England.

The loss to New Zealand prompted a change in tactics and approach from Raj’s side, leading to India’s highest World Cup total against the West Indies. England and Knight will have to be similarly flexible. A slip up will cost them the tournament. They have lost their first three games, and need to win all of the remaining four to stay in with a mathematical chance. India have two wins from three, and so slightly more breathing room. But not much. Rarely do India face England in such situations, with a chance to knock them out. But a slip-up, and the shoe will be on the other foot.

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