Monday, 3 November 2014

The Rise and Rise of the West Indies

This article first appeared in my column "Seamstress" for Wisden India.


Anisa Mohammed (R) became only the sixth player to breach the 100 ODI wickets club, while Stafanie Taylor is currently No. 1 allrounder in ODIs. © Getty Images

My first memory of a women’s cricket team from the West Indies is watching a series they played in India in 2004. My recollection of that time is a bit fuzzy (although that might have something to do with DD Sports’ picture quality) and I cannot recall much except that Asmi Jewellers was sponsoring India Women at the time, which was big news. As for the cricket, an Indian team that was peaking brushed aside the Windes women 5-0 in the One-Day Internationals. It was, for India, a good build-up to the 2005 Women’s World Cup around the corner. For West Indies, I imagine every day was a new step on a steep learning curve for a team just finding its feet.
Fast track to 2009. It’s the ICC Women’s World Cup in Australia, and India would play the West Indies again after a gap of four years. India were not about to take this team lightly, and I watched from the sidelines as our bowlers gave nothing away to shoot out West Indies Women for 84. The total was dealt with easily enough, and another West Indies challenge to one of the ‘big four’ teams was duly brushed aside.
Jump ahead to 2011: the West Indies tour India for five ODIs and three Twenty20 Internationals. I had just made a comeback into the Indian team and played in the customary warm up match. We lost, but not before stretching the visitors a bit. The Indian team was brimming with confidence, but we were in for a rude shock, as we went down in the opening game in Mumbai to a dominant and, truthfully, surprising display from the tourists.
If we thought the slow turning pitches of Baroda would give us the advantage – which they did, we beat them in the second game, only just – it was short lived as the West Indies took the leadin the third match. The fourth game at Rajkot went down to the wire despite a timely ton from Mithali Raj on a featherbed in Rajkot, but we kept the series alive.
It was down to the final match of the series, and in a tense, low-scoring game, chasing 188, West Indies couldn’t hold their nerve and collapsed for 131. The celebrations in the Indian dressing room began, but were muted, for we had just about managed to best an opponent we had never lost a duel to. For this opponent had come back with a stronger body, sharper sword and better armour.
The 2013 World Cup. India, the hosts, and West Indies would face off again, this time in the tournament opener. I danced in the stands as Poonam Raut and Thirush Kamini sent them on a leather hunt and batted them out of the game to set up a crushing win. But that was all the joy Indian supporters would get in that tournament.
As for the West Indies, in the Super Six stage, they turned the tables on Australia, another Big Four team, and usurped a place in the final, edging out holders England. Though they could not repeat their Houdini act in the final, they finished with their best ever World Cup performance. They had officially arrived, and, like their male counterparts, were not afraid to show it, with Gangnam Style celebrations telling us how much they were enjoying their cricket.
Now, West Indies have just completed a 4-0 rout of New Zealand’s White Ferns in the ODIs. Three of those four wins would qualify as crushing, and the last would be called a miracle of self-belief. Currently, they are sitting pretty atop the fledgling ICC Women’s Championship charts. They are statistically the team ranked No. 1 in the world, although the road to the 2017 World Cup is long and the journey has only just begun. But tectonic plates in women’s cricket are shifting, and West Indies, in the eyes of many, have taken India’s place in the Big Four.
Their rise, to an outside observer, has been remarkable. The West Indies Cricket Board certainly seems to take their women’s team seriously, and have appointed Sherwin Campbell, the former Test cricketer, as their coach. They appear to have a clear performance road map in place. Their selectors have on many occasions shown long-term vision. Merissa Aguilleira, the wicketkeeper-captain, has led this team for more than four years now. Out of the team that played in the 2011 series in India, ten players featured in the 2013 World Cup in India. The selectors have chosen and groomed a core of talented players, who have soaked up the experience this continuity has offered them, and have emerged as match-winners.
Anisa Mohammed, the offspinner, at just 26, recently became only the sixth player to breach the 100 ODI wickets club. Stafanie Taylor, the allrounder, is currently No. 1 in the women’s allrounder rankings (ODI). Pacers Shakira Selman and Tremayne Smartt both picked up their maiden five wicket hauls in the series against New Zealand. And everybody knew Deandra Dottin could smash the ball, but watching her bat maturely to amass 271 runs in four ODIs and three T20Is, including three half-centuries and three unbeaten knocks, will give opposition captains worldwide some sleepless nights.
Their true test lies ahead. They will carry confidence from this series when they travel Down Under, where they will need it as they face the world champions, Australia’s Southern Stars. The series, beginning on November 2 with the first of four T20Is, followed by four ODIs, will pit the two biggest-hitting sides in world cricket against each other. It promises enthralling games, and if the West Indies have their way, the Australian summer may just see more Gangnam Style celebrations.

The Format Specific preparation of Sri Lanka and South Africa

This article first appeared in my Column "Seamstress" for Wisden India.


Chamari Atapattu, the new Sri Lankan skipper, has her work cut out.
Early this year in January, when I turned out for India A in a warm-up game against the touring Sri Lanka Women, I got a good look at most of their players. We almost squeezed out a victory in that game, and I was confident our senior squad would win the One-Day International and Twenty20 International series convincingly. Then, someone in our team insightfully observed: “They aren’t here to play the one-dayers. It’s the T20s they have their sights set on.”
That was prophetic. India easily made a clean sweep of the ODIs, with Gouher Sultana, the left-arm spinner, doing most of the damage. But with their nemesis not part of the Indian T20 squad, the Sri Lankans clinched the three-match T20I series, their first-ever series win against India.
‘’It’s the T20s they have their sights set on.’’ This made sense considering that the ICC World T20 in Bangladesh was just a couple of months away, while the next 50-over World Cup was slated for 2017. This focus on the T20Is reappeared during England Academy’s tour of Sri Lanka in February 2014. The home side fielded a full-strength squad for the 20-over games, but an inexperienced one for the ODIs. Sri Lanka women’s cricket officials had a plan for their team, that much was clear, and it most likely involved at least a last four finish in Bangladesh, if not higher.
And they had the firepower too. Chamari Atapattu and Yasoda Mendis were providing the kind of hammer-and-tongs starts they needed, with Mendis doing most of the hammering. The all-round capabilities of Achini Kaushalya and Sanjeewani Weerakoddy gave them flexibility and strength in the middle order. Led by the experienced Shashikala Siriwardene and boasting an athletic fielding unit, they were more confident as a T20 side than a one-day one.
Alas, the World T20 in Bangladesh was the archetypical anti-climax for Sri Lanka. After pocketing the first group game by handing India a third defeat in four matches, the Islanders proceeded to lose their next three games, and hopes of a more substantial takeaway than a participation certificate were erased. The subsequent resignation of Siriwardene as captain completed the sinking of their proverbial Titanic, which, at the start of their journey, was unthinkable. And last week, the board launched an initial investigation into worrying allegations of sexual abuse of the players reported in a local publication.
While Bangladesh proved the unravelling of Sri Lanka’s dreams, it was the springboard into the limelight for another upcoming side, South Africa. Inhabiting the same pool as favourites Australia and strong challengers New Zealand, few would have predicted that South Africa would be the ones to make a last four appearance. They managed to beat the White Ferns in a T20I for the first time ever to force a three-way tie in the group, and thanks to big wins over Pakistan and Ireland, edged ahead on run rate. Although they ran themselves out in the semifinal, they had announced themselves on the global stage. In making only their second last four appearance in a global tournament, they had repaid the faith their administration was showing in them – Cricket South Africa had recently introduced contracts for six of their women’s players and team sponsor Momentum was backing them in a big way).
So, it was only a matter of time till South Africa pulled something like this off. Just like India’s style of play is suited to Tests, T20 best suits South Africa’s brand of cricket. To give you an idea, the team’s opponents in the semifinal, England, had been unable to hit any sixes in their group games. South Africa hit ten. The power-hitting game that the England (and India) team so covet is well established in the South African unit. When they can extend it consistently to longer, calculated innings, they could post totals that stretch the top teams. Contracts to eight more players in August was just reward for their toils and spoils in Bangladesh.
South Africa and Sri Lanka have more in common than might appear. Both appear to enjoy good support from their home boards. Both teams are looking at T20s as the battleground to announce their ascendancy. And both teams, both “T20 specialists’’, recently faced off in a one-day and T20I series in Sri Lanka, also comprising three ICC Women’s World Championship ODIs. South Africa Women were carrying the momentum of their World T20 appearance and the experience of a T20 series against England. Sri Lanka were hoping for a recrudescence of the wave of optimism with which they rode into the World T20, under their new skipper, Atapattu. So it was not surprising that the series was a closely fought one, with Sri Lanka eventually surrendering the home advantage and South Africa picking up dual series wins.
I can’t wait to see both teams in action in the 2016 World T20 in India. But the truly mouth-watering prospect is seeing how they evolve in time for the ICC Women’s World Cup in England in 2017. Will they be able to build strong ODI teams? There is time aplenty, and both teams need to use it wisely. South Africa Women can take a cue from how England built up to the 2009 World Cup. If they give their core unit of players consistent international exposure, they might see their promising youngsters bloom into match-winners, and peak in time to challenge the best in the world. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, will need to rebuild under a new captain, whose biggest test will be off the field: to hold the team together through the disturbing allegations being made within their board, threatening all the progress so far.