By Snehal Pradhan, former India cricketer
There are two ways to clean up a phone that has slowed down: Either you remove those bulky WhatsApp videos, the chats with the ex-boyfriend, and other flotsam and jetsam, and leave in place only those apps which you really want, however bulky (Instagram, I’m looking at you) they are. Or you wipe the slate clean by pressing the factory reset button, and then think carefully about what you need to reinstall.
These are the choices that the Indian women’s team is faced with, as they build a team for the T20 World Cup in 2020, after a reality-checking whitewash by New Zealand. In all three games, the team was in winning positions, mostly thanks to the bat of Smriti Mandhana, who finished with scores of 58, 36 and 86 at a strike rate of almost 150. But in all three games, the pendulum swung after her wicket fell, and India’s middle-order crumbled.
Aside from Jemimah Rodrigues, no other Indian batter made an impression. Most damaging were the lack of runs from captain Harmanpreet Kaur, who is known to raise her game on big occasions, but seems to lose consistency before and after. The last time these sides met, she smashed an electric hundred. In this series, she scored 17, 5 and 2.
Viewers need to keep in mind that modern T20 demands a highrisk style of play, which makes consistency harder to achieve . Don’t let Mandhana fool you: a similar approach brought her scores of 0, 6, 5 and 0 in the last T20I bilateral series that India played. In this hit-or-miss world, India need someone who can provide stability in the middle.
And there are two paths to finding it. In these pages, last year, I said aloud what many were thinking: that Mithali Raj shouldn’t be opening the batting for India, but play in the middle-order instead. “Mithali’s game is perfectly suited for overs 7 to 16, where she can anchor the innings and allow the team’s other power-players to bat around her.” Those were my words. It was a severely unpopular opinion, one that cost a coach his job. But the new coach kept Mithali out of his vision too, until an injury paved the way for her return to the XI, this time in the middle-order. At the crease, she showed innovations that she has rarely used before, shifting her stance and playing the field, taking India to the brink of victory.
Mithali is a once-in-a-generation talent, invaluable even in her 20th year in international cricket, even when not used efficiently. India have a weak middle-order today partly because Mithali was used to open the innings over the last year, and few were ready to rock that boat, sluggish as it was. The best players are the ones who fit the team’s needs, and Mithali has shown in one innings the ability to innovate. Maybe she could now guide the middle-order a while longer.
Or maybe the time has come for a hard reset. With newspaper reports suggesting that Mithali will quit T20Is after the next series at home, the youngsters could be thrown into the deep and given the time to learn to swim.
Dayalan Hemalatha, Taniya Bhatia and Deepti Sharma, all three have shown that they have what it takes to succeed internationally, but they need time and security to ripen. Unfortunately, the Indian domestic system is far from a preparatory school for international cricket. Until recent reforms, players had no financial stabi l ity and played a woeful ly low number of games. It still does not have a national Under-16 competition. So these younger players will need time to find their feet. Hopefully, the 12 months before the next T20 World Cup in Australia are enough.
Counter-intuitive as it seems, the team may benefit from Mithali’s exit, as England did after their long-time captain Charlotte Edwards was eased out. The England coach felt the younger players were hiding behind her, and he was right. England have won a World Cup and reached a World T20 final since. You lose something invaluable in a hard reset, but you gain something too. ‘This team, without Mithali, is still good enough. It’s just that, they need to believe in themselves as much as I believe in them.’ These aren’t my words. These are the words of Mithali Raj. In these pages. Last year.