Friday, 10 July 2015

Points lost, series won, best possible result

This article first appeared in '' Seamstress '', my column for Wisden India

How often is it that both teams can claim a series victory? Once too often for New Zealand, who twice in succession now have lost a series after winning the ‘series within the series’.  The visiting New Zealand team won two of the first three ODIs in this series, claiming four valuable ICC women’s championship points that pushed them up to fifth in the ICC points table. But like their last series against England, they went on to lose the five match ODI series 2-3 overall, this time India dominating the last two encounters.
There are though, many positives to reflect upon for New Zealand. After falling into the trap of playing safe in pursuit of a small total in the first ODI, they adapted admirably in the next two games. Their batsmen showed a positive and aggressive approach, not unlike that which the Black Caps team has made their own. The results showed, as they stumbled over their small target in the second ODI, and waltzed past it in the third. All-rounder Sophie Devine spoke about both the approach and the comparison in a post-match interview, and said there was no effort to copy the Black Caps. The White Ferns wanted to create their own style, and playing attacking cricket was very much a part of that.

 It was not just their approach, but also their shot selection and application that were impressive. They used the sweep to good effect to nullify the Indian spinners, and made merry whenever the Indian bowlers erred in length, especially fond of anything short. Sophie Devine’s display of footwork against leg spin in the fourth ODI was worthy of a batsmen brought up on the dust bowls of Chennai, not windy Wellington. Amy Satterthwaite too was impressive throughout the tournament; though she could not go on to register a big score. But in the absence of veteran Sara McGlashan, the batting seemed a little top heavy on more than one occasion.

Debutant Leigh Kasperek lent some stability to the lower order, and with ball in hand, the former Scottish international showed a willingness to flight the ball irrespective of the situation. She displaced incumbent spinner Georgia Guy from the starting XI with her all round potential. Lea Tahuhu also impressed with her pace and ability to pick up wickets in her second spells. And by the time the series had moved on, ‘’Don’t hit it near Katie Perkins” was probably the instruction in the Indian team meetings. The redhead-who set the tone for the visitors in the first ODI with a stunning aerial catch to dismiss Mithali Raj- underlined the effort the White ferns had put into their fielding.

If the White Ferns adapted their approach after the first match itself, the Indian batting unit was guilty of taking two matches more to learn their lesson. In the first three matches, batting first, the Indian eves had managed 142 all out, 163 all out, and 182/9. The batting was tepid at best, underlined by a dependence on boundaries and indolent running between wickets. It was not until they had their backs to the wall in the fourth ODI, having been set 221 as a target, were they forced to bat more positively. Beware the cornered tigers indeed. In the last two ODIs, the Indian side, for whom bowling had always been the stronger skill set, put in two of the most dominant batting displays seen from this team in recent rimes. A deliberate effort to dominate the bowlers, to use the flight offered by the spinners, to not let the part timers settle, and to run aggressively, could be seen. The likes of Smriti Mandhana, Thirushkamini, and Harmanpreet Kaur, who had played cautiously in the previous games, opened up and gave a full account of the panoply of their strokes.   The difference was so stark, it was almost as if we were watching another team altogether. One can only wonder wistfully what would the score line have been had this change come sooner.

On the bowling front, Jhulan Goswami showed no signs of the injury that kept her out of the Challenger Trophy just before this series, although the commentators did mention ‘pain killing injections’. She bowled with fire and accuracy, and was always given appropriate respect by the Kiwi top order, and often their edges. On a venue where the spinners and batsmen dominated, she along with Tahuhu showed the value of having a genuine quick bowler in the ranks.  India struggled to find a suitable new ball partner for her though, which meant spin almost always made an appearance within the first ten overs. And rarely did it disappoint. Rajeshwari Gayakwad made full use of the conditions on her home ground, and picked up wickets at crucial junctures with her efficacious left arm spin. As the series progressed, she became the go-to bowler for Mithali Raj, and was the only spinner to play all five matches. The Indian fielding however left a lot to be desired on a number of occasions, despite being punctuated by the occasional flash of brilliance.

With India due to travel to Australia in the Aussie summer for next round of ICCWC matches, this series win  against a quality New Zealand side will be a shot in the arm for the women’s team. Although India conceded four ICCWC points, coming back after being 1-2 down and dominating the next two games is a huge achievement. The ‘Women in Blue’ showed they have skills and pluck required to wrest the momentum comprehensively away from a side like New Zealand, and then to keep them on the mat in a decider. The self-belief gained from this performance is worth much more than all six ICCWC points that were on offer. Worst case scenario, India will need to play the ICC’s qualifying tournament to determine rankings before the World Cup, slated to be in England in 2017. More international matches against good teams leading into a World Cup can only be good news. If the Indian women can maintain this aggressive approach, and temper it with their abundant skills, wonders can be achieved in the forthcoming T20 series, and even down under.

It is also necessary to put this series win in another context : This series was the first home series to be broadcast live by the Star network (who are now the sponsors of the BCCI) and the first home series to be broadcast at all for many a year now. With the eyes of the world, and the powers that be at the BCCI upon them, it was important to put up a good show. With the new BCCI administration having recently singled out women’s cricket as an area that they want to develop, this performance is reassuring. It emphasizes the talent and potential that this squad has, and the impending contracts for women cricketers will go a long way in allowing the players to train professionally, which can only lead to an improvement in performances. Through this show, the Indian women’s team has shown the BCCI that the raw material exists, and with some smart investment, proper foresight, and a lot of hard work, the returns could be well worth it.