India's bowling woes in need of an instant fix
India celebrate a wicket. © Getty Images
The 2017 World Cup in England was a landmark moment for women’s cricket. A decade or two from now, we might look back at that event as a huge turning point in cricket history. More so, because cricket’s biggest market, India, paid attention to the game like never before. It was a remarkable journey which the Indian team went on from the qualifiers till the final at Lord’s, which they lost by just nine runs. NINE RUNS. That is all that separated them from winning the whole thing, having not directly qualified for the event in the first place.
Heading into the 2022 World Cup in New Zealand, the Indian team is one of the favorites to lift the title. But their numbers in 2021 don't make for happy reading. Since the final of the World Cup in 2017, India’s numbers in ODIs can be divided into two halves.
Between the final and the time when the pandemic started, India played 24 ODIs, winning 15 and losing nine. This included series wins in Sri Lanka, South Africa, New Zealand and West Indies. Apart from this, India won two series against England and lost 3-0 to Australia, both at home. However, since returning from the one-year break after the pandemic, India’s form has slumped. They have lost all the three series they have played, winning only three of their 11 matches. This includes a 4-1 loss at home against South Africa and 2-1 losses in England and Australia.
While there have been a lot of debates around the fact that India is batting slowly in ODI cricket, that isn’t quite correct because there has been an improvement in the overall numbers since the pandemic hit. In the second phase, India’s batting average has gone up from 30.30 to 32.61, while the run-rate (runs per over) has gone up from 4.41 to 4.66.
The issue lies with the bowling. India’s bowling average was 23.67 with an economy of 4.25 between July 2017 and end of 2020. However, in 2021, the bowling average was 43.35 with an economy of 4.90. That basically means the Indian bowlers have been giving 20 runs more for each wicket they have taken and are conceding a quarter of a run more in each over they bowl.
Diminishing returns a cause of concern
As a matter of fact, India’s bowling average has been the second-worst among all the teams in the past 12 months, only above Zimbabwe (46.03). Their economy rate in this period is the third worst, behind Zimbabwe and New Zealand. With those numbers, teams don’t often win matches. In the period before that, India’s bowling average and economy rate were third-best in the world, only behind South Africa and Australia.
What is also notable is that in the 11 matches which India played in 2021, they lost all the eight matches when they had to post a score on the board and defend it. Surprisingly the three matches they won were all batting second. And the scores which India failed to defend were not all low scores: 177, 248, 266, 188, 201, 221, 225 and 274.
Let’s talk about how the individuals in the Indian bowling line-up have done. Jhulan Goswami had one of her best years with the ball, picking up 15 wickets at 23.13 with an economy of 3.77. Then there was Rajeshwari Gayakwad, who picked up eight wickets in seven games at an average of 31.12, but six of those wickets came in two matches.
Can India's spinners regain their bite?
Apart from these two bowlers, the rest of them were pretty flat. And, what was even more disappointing was the fact that the spinners were not delivering. Remember the period after the 2017 World Cup when India won 15 out of 24 games? In that period the spinners took 62% of the wickets which fell and in wins, that percentage went up to 67.
That explains the Indian side's dependence on its spinners. Cut to 2021, the Indian team collectively got 51 wickets in 11 matches, out of which the spinners had taken 26, which comes up to 51% of the total wickets.
In 2022, India will be in New Zealand, a country which has been known to have conditions more suitable to seamers than spinners. That might well be a relief for the team management. They can have the spinners take the back seat and let the seamers take charge. Well, that is exactly what teams do. So, of course India brought an experienced pace attack to tackle this…..! Ah, well, not quite.
You can argue that the Indian pace bowling brigade in New Zealand has a collective experience of 205 ODIs. But take Jhulan out of the equation and you basically have Pooja Vastrakar, who has been in and out of the team for a few years now, Meghna Singh, who was impressive in Australia but picked up one wicket at an average of 102 in the three ODIs, and Renuka Singh Thakur, who hasn’t played a 50-overs match yet for India.
Shikha Pandey's absence might hurt India
(Just a side note, Shikha Pandey, who is not a part of the squad, picked up 28 wickets at an average of 23.64 in 20 games post the World Cup final to when the pandemic started. She has played only three games since the resumption post the pandemic.)
Despite all of that, India are likely to field three seamers at least in New Zealand, with Jhulan in-charge. But, that covers only half of the bowling attack. Who fills in the rest of the slots? For the first time in a few years, the choice for India isn’t that easy. Gayakwad has had a decent enough run, but the numbers of some of the other players are a lot more disappointing.
Deepti Sharma, who had 24 wickets in as many games in the period before, has taken only five wickets in ten games in 2021. Her bowling average has been 76.80 and she has picked a wicket once every 15 overs.
Poonam Yadav, who had 39 wickets in 23 games and was India’s leading wicket-taker between the World Cup final and when the pandemic hit, has managed only four wickets in eight games since things opened up. Her bowling average in 2021 was 88.25, with a strike rate of 106.5.
Ekta Bisht, who had 25 wickets in 15 matches in the period before, has fallen out of favor and played one ODI in 2021. She has been picked in the reserves for the World Cup. Sneh Rana’s batting has been impressive since her return in the Indian set-up, but her bowling has lacked penetration. She took three wickets in four games in 2021 at an average of 58.66.
Are pitches to blame for India's struggles?
And if you think that the spinners didn’t get enough from the wicket in the matches which India played in 2021, then you are probably wrong. Sophie Ecclestone got eight wickets in three games, Sophie Molinuex got five in three, Nondumiso Shangase got three in three and Nonkululeko Mlaba got two in two. You get the idea.
So who should India pick as their spinners? Gayakwad looks like a certainty to get a place, while we Deepti and Sneh might be fighting for one slot. What could add to India’s bowling prowess slightly is Harmanpreet Kaur as the sixth bowler. Her exploits in the WBBL gives some hope, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that she has taken seven wickets at 55.71 in ODIs since that World Cup final. On top of that, if a team needs their sixth bowler to be the prime wicket-taking option, then they are in plenty of trouble.
There is a lot that Ramesh Powar and Mithali Raj have to figure out ahead of the mega event, which is less than a month away now. India’s batting has been questioned several times during 2021, for strike rate, for how they bat in the middle overs or how their lower order doesn’t add much value. But, there’s an old saying, batters win you matches, bowlers win you tournaments. If that is true, Indian bowlers need to quickly figure out what is not working for them before time runs out.
Having said that, we need to acknowledge that the dynamics of multi-team tournaments are different. A bowler might face the best team in the world and get smashed in one game and then turn up against a lower-ranked team, take a five-for, improve their average and all the numbers talk looks silly again. But, most importantly, India's bowlers need to find a way to stop the opposition from scoring more than their team. Because in cricket, it doesn’t matter who averages what, what matters is that your team collectively scores one run more than the opposition.