Old issues resurface for India after failed chase against New Zealand

Shafali Verma, Deepti Sharma and Harmanpreet Kaur of India © Getty Images

After their glorious run at the 2017 World Cup, India’s display over the last World Cup cycle was a tale of two halves. They were hugely impressive pre-pandemic and largely below par post the pandemic. However, the one thing that India managed to crack was chasing. They won 13 of the 19 matches while chasing. That number, though, comes with an asterisk.

In the four matches before Thursday where they were chasing 250 plus, they only won one. That win came in the very last match before the World Cup against the same opposition. Two of the prime reasons for that chase were the fast start provided by Shafali Verma-Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur controlling the chase from number four.

Middle order muddle

The primary reason for India’s struggle in tall chases has been the strike rate of their middle order batters. Of the main batters that India picked in their World Cup squad, only Smriti Mandhana (88.95) and Richa Ghosh (102.76) have scored at a strike rate of over 80 in the last World Cup cycle. Their other primary batters have strike rates ranging from 64.40 (Mithali Raj) to 73.86 (Shafali Verma).

By contrast, England and Australia have four and six batters in their squad who have scored over a strike rate of 80 in the last World Cup cycle. The corresponding numbers for New Zealand and South Africa are three and two respectively.

The India-New Zealand contest was always going to be crucial at the World Cup as the two teams are ranked fourth and fifth in the ICC rankings. With West Indies beating two higher-ranked teams in England and New Zealand, the match assumed even greater significance.

Of the three venues that have been used at the World Cup so far, Seddon Park in Hamilton has easily been the flattest. So when New Zealand just got 260, India’s bowlers had done well to restrict them to a score that was below par.

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“I think we actually thought we’re probably 10 to 15 (runs) short and we looked a few short out there and lost a few too many wickets in the backend and couldn’t capitalize in the last 10 overs with the bat,” New Zealand’s best bowler on the day, Lea Tahuhu, said after the match.

What complicated matters further was that there was little assistance for bowlers from the pitch, which made it even more difficult for the batters. “But we got a lot of good communication from the batters who had been out there and it was sort of a wicket that we thought you needed to just bowl wicket to wicket – you weren’t going to go out there and rip through anyone with any pace. And then obviously, having the three left handers out there, to open with, did a fantastic job for us up the front there.”

Moreover, the pitch did not change or slow down over the match. “I don’t think the pitch changed too much. Obviously it got a little bit dewy so it might have gone a little bit more for us in that second innings but it was a pretty good pitch,” Tahuhu said.

Did India drop Shafali too early?

Even before the match began though, Shafali’s exclusion was a big talking point. When asked about the same after the match, India’s batting coach Shiv Sundar Das said, “I think she got a fair chance for last seven-eight games and I thought we could give her a break. Obviously, she’s a really talented batter. And I hope in this break she gets going and comes back stronger in the next games.”

While Das was right about Verma being given a long run, she had played each of the 12 ODIs that India had played since her debut and had not done much wrong. In her first nine ODIs, she averaged 27.88 at a strike rate of 75.37. More importantly, India’s average opening partnership in those nine matches was 51.44 at a run rate of 5.81. That run rate is easily the best in the world and the average is only second to South Africa’s in the same period.

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Shafali scored 0, 9 and 0 in the last three innings but she was dismissed by a rank loose delivery in the first of those innings and by a catch of the year contender in the second. Having groomed her for the opening position over the last year, India seemed to have pressed the panic button by asking Yastika Bhatia to open for the first time in international cricket in a clutch game.

The Deepti Sharma conundrum

Bhatia, understandably, struggled to get going and was slow out of the blocks. However, where India erred again was in sending Deepti Sharma at number 3. It seemed to be circa 2017 all over again as India’s struggle mirrored those from the last edition. Deepti batted at 3 in four matches in the last edition, scoring 172 runs at an average of 43 but her strike rate was a paltry 56.02. India then addressed that issue by pushing Mithali and Harmanpreet up to three and four and went all the way to the final.

Over the course of her career, Deepti has batted at three 16 times and her numbers don’t make for encouraging reading: an average of 34.21 at a strike rate of 58.13. The other major issue with batting Deepti at number three is it makes Mithali and Harmanpreet bat out of their most preferred positions: no. 3 and no. 4 respectively. Five of Mithali’s seven centuries in ODIs have come at no. 3 and she averages a very healthy 52.11 in the position. Harmanpreet averages 40.45, while striking at 70.22.

Deepti batting at 3 also meant that all of India’s three left handers were bunched at the top. New Zealand took full advantage of that by bowling Frances Mackay in the powerplay and putting a lid on the scoring.

It was a problem that Das seemed to acknowledge too, saying, “I think if you see our top order, it was an experienced top order – with Smriti batting – we thought we could get some runs at the top but maybe we have to think about this decision in the next game.”

With the next game against the surging West Indies in less than 24 hours, the time to act for India is now.