Lack of bench strength a big worry for India
- In the batting department, skipper Mithali Raj, 38, and her deputy Harmanpreet Kaur, 32 have been shouldering the responsibility for more than a decade and a half, playing big innings and fashioning India’s famous victories.
Veteran pace bowler Jhulan Goswami went on to finish her quota of 10 overs with an impressive economy rate of 3.70 in the fifth and final one-dayer against South Africa on Wednesday. She did the job even though her left hand was heavily strapped and she was in pain after a freak injury following a difficult catch at mid-off.
This wasn’t the first time the 38-year-old from Bengal had put the team interest ahead of her. She has been India’s frontline bowler for nearly two decades and it’s unlikely anyone in the current lot will be able to step into her shoes.
In the batting department, skipper Mithali Raj, 38, and her deputy Harmanpreet Kaur, 32 have been shouldering the responsibility for more than a decade and a half, playing big innings and fashioning India’s famous victories.
But as they enter the twilight of their careers, the question being asked is, what next for Indian women’s cricket, especially after the hosts lost to South Africa 1-4 in the five-match ODI series. Some of the reasons are obvious—lack of game time due to Covid-19 restrictions and the resulting “rustiness”— while some of the less obvious reasons are inadequate planning vis-à-vis the men’s team, and fewer opportunities to play competitive cricket.
All these issues have become more relevant now as India will aim for a good show at the World Cup in New Zealand, starting March 4 next year. In the last 44 years, India have finished runners-up twice, in 2005 and 2017, losing to Australia and England, respectively.
Introspection after the ODI series defeat against South Africa has become necessary if India are to be a potent force in the upcoming World Cup. Experienced Punam Raut was the top scorer in the side with 263 runs, including an unbeaten 104 in the fourth ODI. She was followed by skipper Mithali Raj (210), Harmanpreet Kaur (160) and Smriti Mandhana (147). In the bowling department, Goswami and Rajeshwari Gayakwad finished with eight wickets each. Pacer Mansi Joshi and part-time offie Kaur had three and two wickets, respectively.
Skipper Raj and chief coach WV Raman accepted that “lack of game time” was the biggest reason for the team’s below-par performance. “We do need some camps in future as we were underprepared. We tried to improve our batting match-by-match, but it didn’t make much of a difference,” said Raj.
She also said that India spinners needed to work harder. “South African batters were too attacking against the Indian spinners. They were outstanding on the field, while we were patchy.”
Coach Raman said the players lacked game time and were “short on mental stamina and cricketing fitness”. “It is very simple, the girls lacked game time, and they were obviously short in terms of mental stamina and cricketing fitness. It's not easy to come back after 15 months and play a one-day series and retain the focus and intensity that is required to put the opposition under pressure. So, these things do happen… it happens to the best of players and the best of teams,” said Raman.
While the coach said the bowlers were not consistent enough, he refused to put the blame of the series loss on them. “I think what probably did not go in our favour was the fact that the bowlers could not be consistent…but there is no blaming them at all because it was expected.”
Former India captain Anjum Chopra felt the Indians “underestimated” a well-prepared Proteas side. “They (SA) have been playing cricket for quite some time and were well prepared before taking on an “overconfident” India. So, this kind of result was very much expected,” said Chopra on Thursday.
“In the last decade or so, the South African women cricketers have improved way beyond imagination and it’s the result of their continuous exposure. Most of their girls were part of the Big Bash League and they had done their homework before coming to India,” she said, adding, “In my view, it’s not that India played bad, but South Africa played better cricket.
“We need to have adequate competitive cricket for our women and they should also learn to score 280-300 runs in ODIs as this has never been the case with the Indian side.”
Praising Raj, Kaur, Mandhana and pacer Goswami for serving Indian cricket for long, Chopra, said that these players have been doing well but there was no one to replace them. “Look at our bench strength, the next generation should shoulder the responsibility well and they need to have the guts to replace their seniors by giving good performances.”
Chopra, now a commentator, also said Indian women’s team also needed an “overall good support” from everyone. “Unlike men’s cricket, where the calendar is prepared well in advance, our women cricketers are clueless about their next ODI series, so expecting a turnaround overnight is impossible.
“We don’t have a future plan for the side right now. Our domestic cricket is not regular. If there is no competitive cricket for them, then how do we expect them to keep doing well against foreign teams?” she added.
Former India medium-pacer Amita Sharma, who now coaches the Delhi team, put the blame on the selectors for leaving out the experienced Shikha Pandey for the series. “Leaving out Shikha Pandey was a bad decision. She is experienced and fit enough to share the new ball with Goswami.
“Also, there was no Plan B if the spinners failed. The team management should have done some brainstorming on this,” she said, adding, “I hope they learn from their mistakes and make amends.”