What we learnt about India’s T20I side from the Sri Lanka series

India during Sri Lanka series © Sri Lanka Cricket

The 2017 World Cup was an inflection point not just for the ODI format in women’s cricket. Post the seminal event in England, even the shortest format hastened its evolution with the players becoming conscious of the need to specifically mould their skills differently for the T20Is.  There are more big hitters in the game than ever before; anchors have been trying to be innovative to keep up with the game. Bowlers are also fighting back by adding variety to their repertoire. India had two good back-to-back T20 World Cups, but they also had a slew of mixed results. Now with another global event – Commonwealth Games 2022 – around the corner, where do India stand as a T20I side?

When India set out to travel to Sri Lanka for the six-match limited over series – three of them being T20Is, Head Coach Ramesh Powar talked about the need to use those matches to finalise the XI/ squad for the Birmingham games. Sri Lanka weren’t supposed to be a big challenge for India having won 14 matches against them while losing only three. Despite the conditions that are vastly dissimilar from the ones they are going to face in England, the hope was that all the pieces would fall into place by the time the T20I leg ended.

But at the end of the series, although India won it 2-1, there seems to be more questions than from the time they started the tour.

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Abundance of top-order batters

Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma, S Meghana, and Jemimah Rodrigues all open the batting for their respective domestic sides and are predominantly the top three batters in any of the sides they play for. Throw Yastika Bhatia into the mix, she is India’s incumbent number three in ODIs and also acted as the reserve opener during the World Cup 2022. Bhatia also batted in the top three for her domestic side Baroda while also taking up the gloves.

While Mandhana, Verma, and Rodrigues have been regular fixtures in India’s T20I setup most of the time, with the sheer weight of runs and notable performances Meghana and Bhatia forced themselves into India’s squad. In an attempt to fit in both of them– the southpaw was asked to take up wicket-keeping duties from Richa Ghosh after the first T20I – in the playing XI, India were playing Meghana, Rodrigues, and Bhatia out of position.

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It seemed to work in the first match when Rodrigues – arguably the most versatile among top-order batters – helped India, batting at five for the first time, recover from a tricky situation and post a competitive total. The 21-year-old repeated the feat in the third T20I with the support from Harmanpreet Kaur – who looks set to take up the number four role – and India posted a similar score. But on a better wicket, it wasn’t enough. In the second game, Bhatia – in her only appearance with the bat – struggled to force the issue.

(L-R) S Meghana , Jemimah Rodrigues, Harmanpreet Kaur © Getty Images/ Sri Lanka Cricket

Although India can utilise Rodrigues’ versatility and put her at five, the fact is that she is not a power hitter and there could be scenarios where you have to get going straight away at that position with big hits. That’s where the entry points in T20Is has become so crucial over the years; Rodrigues’ success in the Sri Lanka series was partly due to India losing wickets early enough, leaving her time to build her innings.

Going by the numbers, Rodrigues had most of her success in T20Is while batting at number three. She has amassed 882 runs at an average of 30.41 and a strike rate of 111.36 at three. But if India move her to number three, then the issue becomes where will S Meghana bat?

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During her return, Meghana batted at four in the one-off T20I against New Zealand and put up an admirable performance. But she still is an opener or a number three batter at best and can be vulnerable if she has to start against spin.

Getting Meghana in at three and pushing Rodrigues to four is one option India have, but that will create a new headache regarding Kaur’s batting position. While their skipper’s numbers at four and five are similar except for the strike rate, India will have to make allowances for the fact that Kaur can be a slow starter and they would like to let one of their best batters in early and ready for the onslaught.

Again entry points are going to be crucial and India would love to have Kaur batting at the death depending on the scenarios. From whatever little evidence we have had, Bhatia showed that she is an able wicket-keeper, but Ghosh has better big-hitting prowess and would be a better fit to come in at six or after 16 overs. If India want to fit in Bhatia, then they will have to ask her to bat at three in place of Meghana.

Yastika Bhatia (L), Richa Ghosh (R) © Sri Lanka Cricket

If India don’t think they can have both Bhatia and Ghosh in the side at the same time, then they should look for other lower-order hitting options. This brings India to their next problem.

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Lower order hitting and allrounders

18-year-old Ghosh had some success early in her T20I career and then went on to smash the fastest ODI fifty by an Indian against New Zealand in one of the rain-reduced matches earlier this year. Since then she has blown hot and cold and had a middling World Cup with the bat.

If India are convinced that Ghosh can’t be their first choice keeper and ask her to hand over the gloves to Bhatia, then they will have to go searching for batters who can be the enforcers down the order. Kiran Navgire, who is another top-order batter with the ability to go after the spinners, but her game against genuine pace and back-of-the-length deliveries remains untested.

In India’s current squad, they have two pace-bowling allrounders in Pooja Vastrakar and Simran Dil Bahadur in addition to Deepti Sharma, the off-spin allrounder. While Vastrakar make the side as a bowler alone, it’s her power-hitting that gives her an edge over other options. Bahadur, on the other hand, is a work-in-progress as far as both the departments are concerned. 184 runs at 131.42 strike rate and 21 wickets at 20.42 average and 6.11 economy rate could mean, Vastrakar is a sure starter and could be a handy number seven in T20Is.

(L to R) Pooja Vastrakar, Simran Dil Bahadur, Deepti Sharma © Sri Lanka Cricket

That brings the focus to Sharma, the premier spin allrounder of the side. The off-spinner has batted all over the place in ODIs and T20Is, but despite a 17 off eight balls knock at number eight in the first match, she doesn’t inspire any confidence as a batter.

Since January 2018, Sharma has featured in 56 of the 63 T20Is India have played – second most after Mandhana (60) and alongside Kaur – and batted in 42 of them. Despite staying not out in 20 of those matches, Sharma averages a meagre 21.95 and strikes at a sub-optimal 92.52. While those numbers are simply not good enough as a lower-order batter, her bowling is what has kept her in the side.

But of late, her bowling has also tapered off and Sharma has been averaging less than a wicket since India came back from the pandemic in 2021, while also going at an economy rate of 7.05. Only Sarah Glenn has been more expensive during this period among bowlers who bowled a minimum of 30 overs, but the England leg spinner is predominantly a wicket-taking option and has taken wickets at an average of 20.45 and struck at 16.70. Sharma’s equivalent numbers are 29.40 and 25.

India have the option of bringing in Sneh Rana in place of Sharma – the Railways allrounder has been rested for the Sri Lanka tour – as an immediate solution, but Rana is not a big-hitter and relies more on innovation to score her runs. If India were to look for some power from their off-spinning allrounder, going by the Senior T20 Trophy, the other option is Dayalan Hemalatha.

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Hemalatha was the fourth-highest run-getter in the Senior T20 Trophy and scored 272 runs from eight innings at incredible strike rate of 150.27. While her previous stint with India haven’t been fruitful, she can be a like-for-like replacement for Sharma as far as bowling is concerned, and is the better hitter among the trio of Sharma, Rana, and herself.

Effectiveness of spinners and where are the pacers

India’s success in both ODIs and T20Is has been built around the potency of their spinners and much has been written of how things have gone south for India post the pandemic once the effectiveness of their spinners diminished.

What India’s spin attack should be and is it just in need of a personnel change is something that can be known only once you make those moves. From the outset, it seems like India have lost the confidence in their first-choice leg spinner, Poonam Yadav, having fielded her only in the five of the 13 matches they played since 2021.

The 30-year-old hasn’t helped her case with the performances and has struggled to take wickets while also going at 7.11 per over. Poonam seems to be at crossroads as far as her bowling is concerned and hasn’t adjusted to the changing demands of the game. Batters from all over the world have been staying on the backfoot and waiting for her slower deliveries which also effectively render her googlies useless.

To be an effective T20 side, teams need to have a leg spinner as their attacking option or as an X factor in their XI. Whether that’s Poonam, Maya Sonawane, Devika Vaidya, Sunanda Yetrekar or someone else, is a call they will have to make.

(L to R) Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Radha Yadav, Poonam Yadav © Getty Images

Slow left-arm spinners in Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Radha Yadav were part of the T20I squad against Sri Lanka. Gayakawd has been India’s most impressive spinner for India in the last two years but bowled only one over in the opening fixture and sat out in the other two games, while Radha, on her return to international cricket, has been the most successful bowler for India with four wickets. The 22-year-old hasn’t looked like her older self and a few more matches under her belt would help her confidence.

Renuka Singh Thakur (L), Meghna Singh (R) © Getty Images/ Sri Lanka Cricket

With the wickets increasingly becoming batter friendly in the shortest format all over the world, gone are days where you could turn up with your spin contingent and expect them to win games. It brings a sense of déjà vu even to write about India’s pace bowling problem. The team management has been vocal about the need to find the new crop of fast bowlers and it seems like they have decided to look beyond Shikha Pandey – you never know with the decision-makers – and one can only hope they will give Dil Bahadur, Renuka Singh Thakur, and Meghna Singh more opportunities to show their wares.

If the pace bowling contingent bears the same look, then young Vastrakar will have to lead the attack in England, but there were no signs of it in Sri Lanka with India choosing to use Vastrakar sparingly and not as the opening bowler. Thakur didn’t have any assistance from the pitch and both Thakur and Singh will be hoping for some swing in Birmingham. Bahadur didn’t inspire any confidence with her bowling against Sri Lanka either, but again it will be unfair on her if India were to look past her in the next series.