Women's Cricket

If India Women hope to become world beaters, they need to kick their habit of sluggish starts

The team must look to dominate in the first 10 overs of their innings.

Hundreds are as rare a thing in Indian women’s cricket as the fifth gear is on Indian roads. There have only been 16 of them by Indians in all of (only) 230 One-Day Internationals, and just nine players have ever made one. Which is why MD Thirushkamini’s effort on Friday, where she remained unbeaten on 113 against Ireland, was a special innings. Thirushkamini also carried her bat through the innings, joining a select club of opening batters who have remained unbeaten and scored a hundred.

A rare century

It also made her only the third Indian to score more than one hundred, joining Mithali Raj, and Jaya Sharma. Along with Deepti Sharma’s second consecutive half century, she helped India post their second consecutive score of 250 or more in ODIs (Wednesday’s game against Thailand did not have ODI status). The pair also scored India’s fifth highest ODI partnership, of 174.

Then there is the fact that Thirushkamini has played only 38 ODIs despite making her debut more than a decade ago at just 16. Her career has been hampered by a knee injury and fitness issues that have seen her all but give up the leg spin bowling that earned her a national call up. So for her to take the opportunity afforded by the injury to India’s first choice opener, Smriti Mandhana, and convert it into a big score is creditable.

For all these reasons, the century should be celebrated. And it will be. But after the high fives, after the player of the match awards, after the joy of securing a spot in the super six, the Indian team coaching staff will probably sit down and look at the last two ODIs and be, as the Irish might say, “just a wee bit” worried.

Defence first

In both games, India have batted first after winning the toss and overcome sluggish starts. In the first, they scored just 22 in the first 10 overs, and in the second, 34. Both times they enjoyed good batting conditions and no real threats in the opposition bowling. Yet the top order seemed to employ the policy of giving the first ten overs to the opposition, and taking toll in the next forty. In today’s age of Twenty20 cricket, where fifty overs can feel like a long time, it is not a bad ploy to use.

Yet the final strike rates of the batters suggest that it is not being applied as well as it could. In the first ODI, Deepti finished with 54 off 96 balls, and in the second, 89 off 128. Both times her strike rate failed to cross 70. Thirushkamini scored a 113 off 146 balls, batting almost half the innings, and finishing with a strike rate of just over 77, with the help of four late sixes. Those sixes, and 17 extras from the tired Ireland bowlers (playing their third game in four days) helped India to 250. Considering they had the skills of Mithali Raj, Veda Krishnamurthy and Haprmanpreet Kaur in the shed, they should have gotten more than that.

Former England cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent observed as much from the commentary booth. “I would love to see India dominating a bit early on, especially if they want to reclaim their place among the top sides in the world”, she said on air.

The share of boundaries in the mammoth partnership on Friday was expectedly high: only 60 runs in the 174 run opening stand they put on came in singles, twos or threes. It underlines India’s approach to batting over the last five years or so, one that has not changed much. While this is only Deepti Sharma’s 12th ODI, the more experienced Thirushkamini has a strike rate of 56 in her career.

India need better, aggressive starts

Compare this to the approach employed by England, Australia and New Zealand, currently sitting in the top three places in the ICC women’s Championship. England played their last series in the ICC women’s championship in and against Sri Lanka, also in Colombo. In conditions close to what India are currently playing in, they averaged 48 runs in the first 10 overs. Australia last played South Africa at home, and averaged 44 runs, despite coming up against one of the world’s finest new ball bowlers, Marizanne Kapp. New Zealand, who hosted their recent series against Pakistan, averaged more than 60 runs in their first 10 overs.

With only two players allowed outside the 23 yard circle, those 10 overs are the best opportunity to score boundaries. The scores of these three countries show that they look at the first ten overs as not just a chance to get their eye in but also a chance to score.

“Thirushkamini played a splendid innings, especially considering she was playing after a long time”, said Purnima Rau, coach of the Indian team. “But the start was a bit disappointing. I felt she could have started calling the shots earlier.”

Eye on the World Cup

But India’s starting troubles are hardly restricted to Thirushkamini and Deepti, but a more cultural malaise. Indian teams are associated with great wrists but heavy legs, with only a few players looking to play the ball with soft hands and drop and run, something the commentators have pointed out. While they scored 250 against Sri Lanka and Ireland, bear in mind that these are teams at the bottom of the pecking order in world cricket. The use of this approach against a more disciplined and penetrative bowling attack could expose it badly, and that is exactly what India will face in the World Cup.

Rau admitted as much, saying the standards had been swinging up and down a bit. “But we have a lot more options with these youngsters doing well, which is important going into a World Cup.

The Indian batting unit have built some confidence, through the runs of the top order and the personal milestones stacked up so far. Having already qualified for the Super Six, they should have one eye on the World Cup as they prepare their batting plans, especially since they will face the formidable South Africa, who they lost to in the warm up game. “The real fun will be the Super Six, with three good teams against us”, Rau confirmed.

While winning this tournament could be a useful launch pad, going down fighting might not be a bad thing. India now has 16 ODI centurions, but not a single World Cup.

Snehal Pradhan is a former women’s international cricketer. She tweets here.

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