In the final of the Quadrangular Series in May, Africa, India women beat hosts South Africa by eight wickets, a comprehensive win. Just five days earlier, India had lost by eight runs to the same team, narrowly missing out in the big chase of 270. To bounce back from that, and beat the a traditionally stronger team on their home turf a month before the World Cup was a huge morale boost for the Women in Blue.
“The South Africa series win made a huge difference to the team, especially the young players like Deepti Sharma and Punam Raut to be among runs,” India’s captain Mithali Raj said a day before the team left for England ahead of the ICC Women’s World Cup.
“It sorted a lot of issues as a captain because India has always struggled with the opening pair,” she explained. “In that series, and in the World Cup qualifiers before that, we got very good starts. The last two series saw the openers do their bit and give us the right kind of a start, posting a total or chasing a huge total like 270. South Africa is a side that has good bowling attack and beating them at home is exceptional by the team. I am confident that they will continue that into the World Cup,” Raj told reporters in Mumbai on Saturday.
Raj’s confidence is founded in the exceptional effort by India in the record-breaking series in South Africa. Veteran fast bowler Jhulan Goswami broke the record for the highest wicket-taker in ODIs, openers Sharma and Raut shared a world record 320-run opening stand,.Sharma scored a whopping 188 runs in that innings, the second highest score in women’s One-day International history and Raj became only the third player to lead in 100 women’s ODIs.
Ahead of the World Cup, the team had a preparatory camp in their last week in India and will have one more once they reach Derbyshire. They will train at Loughborough MCC University and play a practice match against England women before playing two more against New Zealand (June 19) and Sri Lanka (June 21) in Derby where they will be based. The event will be held across England and Wales from June 24 to July 23. On the back of such performances and preparation, it’s hard not to be optimistic about their chances.
The closest India have come at the 50-over event is when they finished as runners-up in 2005. But this is a vastly different team. Today, women’s cricket in the country receives far more attention and support than it did in 2005 and a World Cup win will be big shot in the arm.
“We definitely want to win the World Cup, it will be a revolution for Indian women’s cricket here and it gives the impetus to young girls who want to take the sport. It is a great platform to showcase the brand of cricket the girls have been playing in the past couple of years,” Raj said.
But she also maintained that pacing themselves is important. “Having said that, since the format is different in this edition, it’s a league cum knockout, so it’s a long tour and I want the girls to take it one match a time. Our first step definitely would be to get into the semis,” she said.
The 34-year-old batter, along with Goswami, are the most experienced players in the team, and will shoulder most of the expectation, and pressure. With the matches being televised this year, a chunk of the country’s cricket loving population might be tuning in to watch the women perform at the highest level. How does Raj use this experience to mentor the younger players and deal with expectations?
“We share our experiences with the players. There are few senior players who are aware of the expectations and the pressure one faces during a World Cup. There are first timers who are playing the World Cup. As senior players we can always be around them and give them a cushion and we can take up some of the pressure they face,” she said.
But lately, there has been a crop of consistent match-winners emerging for India, as their coach Tushar Arothe pointed out. “While Mithali and Jhulan are seniors, the other players like Harmanpreet [Kaur], Deepti, Shikha [Pandey] are also contributing. So the pressure is not only on these two as all the girls are chipping in,” he said.
Another trump card that India have is the exposure players like Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana got at the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia earlier this season. “Big Bash is a T20 format so can’t really compare but playing with players from other countries, you exchange ideas and observe how they prepare and get to read their game closely. That gives you a lot of feedback and that’s what the girls who have been to BBL get to the table,” Raj said.
But India’s World Cup squad is not without challenges. For one, there are only three pacers in the squad. The middle order and lower middle order have not been in as good a touch as the top order.
Raj is seeing the bright side of things. “Honestly everybody prefers to have extra fast bowlers in the side. But India have always banked on spinners, irrespective of the wicket. Whether in Australia, South Africa (or elsewhere), spinners have done exceptionally well,” she said.
About the lower-middle order, she said that they have worked on it during the training camp. “Every team has a couple of players who cannot bat that much, they are pure bowlers. So most of the times the lower middle order has to do the job. But our bowlers have worked very hard with the coaches at the preparatory camps we have made sure that they are batting everyday so that when the situation arises, they are capable of pulling the team through.”
Armed with this preparation, the winning momentum and confidence, Mithali Raj will lead India’s campaign at the women’s World Cup on the front foot.