There is palpable optimism in the air. For the first time in four and half decades India’s women cricketers begin their campaign in a World Cup competition as contenders among whom the Australian women count as the most favourite with England not far behind.
The Indian team will take on Pakistan on Sunday (March 6) in the first of the seven league matches at the Bay Oval, Mount Manganui, which is about one and half hours’ drive from Hamilton. The team is led by Mithali Raj who believes that her sixth World Cup (fourth as captain) will bring joy to India’s millions of followers of the game and trigger further interest in women’s cricket.
The change in perspective that the Indian women’s team can match and outsmart other competent sides like Australia, England and New Zealand emerged after India brought down mighty Australia in the semi-finals of the 2017 World Cup in England at the Derby County. The shock victory against Australia was mainly due to Harmanpreet Kaur’s 115 ball unbeaten 171 with 20 hits to the fence and four over the line and the nail-biting final against England, that India lost by nine runs. The outcome of these two matches has indeed changed equation in the overall standing in women’s cricket and India is seen as a force to reckon with and with adequate talent to win the big prize.
But until the beginning of March 2021, Mithali’s team had not hit the ground running and prepare for the quadrennial competition delayed by one year. The pandemic forced the players indoors, but once the BCCI scheduled a home white-ball series against South Africa at Lucknow, things began to move. Head Coach WV Raman was replaced by Ramesh Powar after the series against South Africa and the team travelled to England and Australia for an all-format series comprising one Test and an equal number of ODI and Twenty20 internationals.
Results were not up to expectations, but the team and players gained serious match-time. The five-match series against New Zealand facilitated the team to try out options in batting and bowling and India beat South Africa and the West Indies in the two friendlies leading to the tournament proper of the World Cup.
A former India all-rounder, captain and a three-time World Cupper, Diana Edulji feels that the Indian team is adequately prepared to compete hard in the month-long competition in New Zealand. “They have had a good preparation because they played five ODIs against New Zealand and in addition two warm-up games. I think by now they should be well settled, and I look forward to seeing a very good performance from the team.’’
Diana, who was part of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators for around four years and was instrumental in putting in place the annual contract for the national team, is pleased with the totals put on the board in the five-match series against New Zealand. “Their batting seems settled because they’ve started to post 250 plus totals on a regular basis which is a good sign. Their bowling though needs to be more organised. Hopefully, they will be able to defend the big scores. The first match should not be a problem because India has never ever lost to Pakistan, but the team should not underestimate anybody. Pakistan sprang a surprise in a warm-up game. I think this is going to be an open World Cup. It could be anybody’s.
“The pitches in New Zealand appear to be good. Australia scored 300 plus in a warm-up game and New Zealand chased it down for the loss of only one wicket. India should look to score 270, 280 or even 300, if it’s batting first and restrict the opponent to 250-260. The team should also put the right personnel in the field positions. I think India would be better off a little in running between the wickets. Not jogging, but look for that extra run wherever possible; make one into twos and twos into threes in order to build a good total. I wish them all the very best.”
India has played ten ODIs against Pakistan, three at World Cups, and come out unscathed in all. Pakistan has played 31 matches after the 2017 World Cup, lost 21 and won only 11. It has not beaten Australia and England, too and won only one match against New Zealand in thirteen. But the Pakistani women beat New Zealand and Bangladesh in the warm-up games which should enable it take on India in a positive frame of mind.
In the recent outings against New Zealand, India beat the home team in the last match and lost the series 1-4, but the majority of its batters including Smriti Mandhana got into their rhythm and scored some runs. Harmanpreet returned to form with a half-century. In all the batters scored ten half-centuries with Mithali turning out to be the leading run-getter at 235 with a strike rate of 83.64, while Richa made 146 in four matches.
The bowlers took 31 wickets at 5.80 an over. This is one area Diana pointed out the team has to improve upon. Having played against top teams like England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the last twelve months, the Indian team has had enough match practice and this aspect should keep it in good stead to first play well enough to win points and enter the semi-finals.