Indian Women's Cricket has evolved a lot post-2017 ICC Cricket World Cup. Since then, their performance graph has only gone up. While they have reached the final of the ICC T20 World Cup in 2020, they have played 8 series so far since 2017-18 and won 7.
However, throughout these years, a few changes have taken place – be it the senior pros like Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami's retirement from the shortest format or the young guns like Shafali Verma or Richa Ghosh's entry in the international circuit. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has played its part in 2020.
But in this post-COVID era, like any other country, Team India too have started their international series against South Africa and they returned to the 50-over format after more than a year.
From the previous success, fans were expecting a similar result. But in the five-match ODI series, India have lost three games already and won only one. And, South Africa clinched the series with one game remaining.
Let's have a look at what went wrong for the host:
487 Days without playing ODIs – From November 2019 to March 2021
Indian Women's Cricket team has last featured in the 50-over format against West Indies in 2019. Since then, they didn't play any ODI before they took the field on March 7 against South Africa in Lucknow.
It was also a day short of one year (364 days) that they had featured in any international cricket (last appearance – March 8: Final – ICC T20 World Cup 2020 vs Australia).
While a lot of strict guidelines have been put into place in the post-COVID era, all the other teams have successfully managed international series – be it England, West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan or Germany even Zimbabwe. While the domestic cricket has been placed successfully including the Women's Big Bash League, Team India could manage 0 international series.
However, they had featured in the Women's T20 Challenge last year in November during the playoffs of IPL 2020 – their sole appearance. On the other hand, the Indian men's team had travelled to Australia for a full-fledged series after a successful IPL season. And now, they have been playing another one against England.
As far as Indian Women's cricket is concerned, as many as 4 series were proposed but didn't take place in that time period – Tour of England in September 2020 (Cancelled), Tour of Sri Lanka in Nov-Dec 2020 (?) Tour of Australia in January 2021 (Postponed), Series against West Indies (not confirmed).
After returning to the action after a long, a bit of rustiness was expected to see in the players. And it was visible from the first game despite the vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur denying the fact in the pre-match press conference.
"I do not think we are feeling any rustiness, we are very excited. It was a long break for us, sometimes things are not under your control, but we are very excited and I hope we all will have a great tournament," Harmanpreet Kaur said on Friday (March 5) in the pre-match press conference.
Dismal bowling – a reason for the series defeat
Team India started with a defeat in the first ODI on March 7 where only the captain Mithali Raj scored a fifty and Harmanpreet Kaur scored a quick 40 apart from Jhulan Goswami's 2/38.
While South African bowlers ripped apart India's line up and restricted within 177 after winning the toss, Indian bowlers failed to take early wickets.
In-form South African openers – Lizelle Lee and Laura Wolvaardt added a record 169-run stand, taking the team home with ease. Although Goswami picked up two wickets, that didn't affect their chase.
After the defeat, Kaur admitted the long gap affected them. "We didn't get any international cricket for a year, we just played three IPL games. But other than that, we didn't get any time as a unit. You need to get ready as a unit and spend some together on the field. We are one of the sides that like to learn from our mistakes. We want to learn from our mistakes and prove ourselves," Harmanpreet Kaur said at the post-match press conference.
Cut to second, Goswami, the torchbearer, put up a great show by taking 4/42 and dismantled the opponent's batting line up, restricting within 157.
India opener Smriti Mandhana (80*) with her trademark pull and back foot shots started punishing the bowlers. Alongside Punam Raut (62*), Mandhana guided the team to a convincing win within 28.4 overs.
After this game, when everyone was expecting another cracking win in the third one, their hopes doomed.
Once again losing the toss, India had to bat first. Post Jemimah Rodrigues' fell on a duck, Punam and Smriti's 64-run stand provided with a steady start. However, Raut's 77, and 36 each from Mithali, Kaur and Deepti Sharma helped the team post 248 after 50 overs.
Isn't it a defendable total - considering the senior pro Jhulan's presence alongside India's strongest spin-attack with Deepti, Poonam Yadav and Rajeshwari Gayakwad?
Well, India's spin attack failed to stop the in-form Lizelle Lee whose swashbuckling 132* put a hold on India's winning momentum. Although Goswami finished with 2/20 in her 9 overs spell, India's key spinner Poonam ended wicketless, conceding 51 runs in 10 overs.
Seeing Lee's storm with the bat, many commented on India's batting department as after Harmanpreet's dismissal, the team didn't have any big hitter who could take the total near 260-265. But Raj backed her team in the post-match press conference.
"We definitely need to have batters playing the last 10 overs because obviously the sort of game that a batter has and can improve it to the optimum, the lower or tail-ender may not, so it is important that we have the batters playing the last 10 overs and a settled batter will always be very very helpful in those times, but yes we have players like Harman (Harmanpreet Kaur) and Deepti (Sharma) and it is just a matter of few innings that they will come good in those 10 overs," Mithali Raj said.
"We are looking at competing with the best – the Australia or England side – we are looking at 270-plus. But having said that, I think this was our third game after a long gap and we are one of those countries that have started cricket quite late whereas the other teams already played a couple of series," she again shared.
However, the captain's soldiers didn't break her trust as a better performance came from the batting unit. Despite Smriti's early dismissal, Priya Punia, who came in place of Jemimah, steadied the ship with Punam Raut.
Raut showed her class and scored a well-made century with a better strike rate. Mithali also scored 45. But it was Harmanpreet Kaur whose blistering fifty (54 off 35 with 7 fours and a six) take the team to 266 in 50 overs.
Isn't it a good total on the board, considering the captain said they need to have 270 on board?
Well, India failed miserably in the bowling. Veteran Goswami was out due to injury and India's spin specialists failed to restrict the opponent. Debutant Radha Yadav conceded 68 runs in 9.4 overs whereas lone seamer Mansi Joshi ended with 1/43 in her 7 overs.
South Africa's top-orders scored the fifties each and sealed the deal within 48.4 overs, registering their highest ever run-chase convincingly.
Selection debacle – that cost India the series?
While Team India's return to the circuit after over a year created a buzz, the team announcement made much hype as a few regular faces have been dropped whereas a few new faces have earned their maiden call-up.
Starting with the bowling department, veteran seamer Shikha Pandey was dropped, giving no proper reason. Apart from her, Taniya Bhatia and experienced Ekta Bisht too have been dropped. While Bhatia's excellence behind the stump is no more a secret, Ekta's spin magic is known to all.
Moreover, Shikha Pandey is the most successful bowler for India since her debut who holds the fort from another end alongside Goswami. With both Goswami and Pandey's absence, young Mansi Joshi seemed clueless in the middle as she was no one with her to guide after a bad spell in the fourth game.
Above all, on a greenish pitch in the fourth game, India have played with four regular spinners alongside Kaur instead of seamers.
Lack of pace bowlers in the squad is likely to be the reason. Although Monica Patel made her debut in the first game, she didn't get another chance and the team lost despite having a good total on the board.
On the other hand, leading her domestic side, Goa, Shikha Pandey registered 7.2-2-10-3 and scored an unbeaten 35 so far in the two games respectively she played in the ongoing Senior Women's One Day Tournament.
As far as Ekta Bisht's performance is concerned, she registered 9-2-16-2 and 7-2-9-1 in two games respectively while playing for Railways.
Having an experienced squad behind you and testing with new faces now, considering the important ICC Cricket World Cup in a year, is slightly risky. However, this clearly shows a selection debacle by the Neetu David selection committee as it not only cost the series but without proper game time for the experienced players who are dropped now might affect their performance also.
Well, we can only expect that Team India would play with their best XI when they take the field in their next series.