Pooja Vastrakar: Harman’s henchwoman down the order

Pooja Vastrakar © Sri Lanka Cricket

Pooja Vastrakar is the chameleon of India’s lower-middle order. Rebuilding the innings, supporting a well-settled batter, or just smashing it in the death overs, this player from Madhya Pradesh can do it all. And some of the recent history just highlights that fact.

For the first of those incidents, we have to go back to Vadodara in 2018. When Vastrakar walked in at nine in her first-ever ODI on home soil in March 2018, India were struggling at 113 for seven against Australia. In their first encounter against Australia since that famous semi-final in Derby, in the absence of their regular captain Mithali Raj, India needed someone to stand up against the fired-up Australian bowling line-up. 

It took Vastrakar 10 balls to get off the mark, but she found her feet against then number one ranked ODI bowler, Jess Jonassen, with two back-to-back boundaries. After a lifeline from the Australian captain at mid-off, she clobbered almost every Australian bowler. The partnership of 79 runs between her and Sushma Verma made the Australians question their plans.

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The 18-year-old played one of the shots of the innings when she smashed Ashleigh Garnder for a massive six. With a vocal Vadodara crowd behind her, Vastrakar made batting look easy on the tricky pitch en route to her record-breaking half-century. The stand-in captain, Harmanpreet Kaur, was all-praise for Team India’s newest recruit. 

“She showed her character today. We are expecting more of such innings from her,” Kaur said in the post-match presentation. 

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Multiple injuries kept her away from fulfilling that potential at the International level, but she headlined the Challenger Trophy in 2021. As captain of India D, she batted in the lower-middle order, rescued her team on multiple occasions, and took them to a final against the Sneh Rana-led India A with 161 runs across four matches. With this impressive outing, she booked a ticket to her first-ever ODI World Cup outing. 

In her first-ever World Cup match, Vastrakar had to bail India out once again. In a high-octane clash against Pakistan in Mount Maunganui, India slipped from 96 for two to 114 for six in a disastrous collapse. Even with a packed off-side, it took the right-handed batter just five balls to break the shackles. Two cut shots in Nida Dar’s final over settled her nerves. Rana, batting at the other end, also got a breather as those were India’s first boundaries since the 17th over of the innings. 

Vastrakar brushed off her ankle injury to keep India afloat in the first innings. For the remaining overs, Rana and Vastrakar showcased a masterclass in re-building the innings. The partnership of 122 runs not just bailed India out but put them in a strong position to take their team a step closer to a dominant performance. Vastrakar scored yet another half-century to rescue the team when they needed it the most. 

“When I walked in Charu di (Rana) was already settled. Our plan was to concentrate more on strike rotation,” Vastrakar said after the match. “We were targeting 180-200 when we started, but we knew we could go past that score once we got settled. The situation was really different today. We wanted to bat our natural way till the 45th over and take on the opposition.”

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“We played against each other in the Challenger Trophy,” Rana, who scored 53 in the same game said. “She is a great strike rotator and the only fear I had (as an opposition captain) was what if she gets going against us. Luckily for us, she got out early (in the Challenger Trophy Final). I want to congratulate her on ‘The Player of the Match’ award.”

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Vastrakar found herself in a similar situation against Sri Lanka in the final ODI on Friday (July 9). India were looking to sweep the ODI series 3-0 against the hosts but found themselves in a wobble when they lost wickets at regular intervals. Kaur, leading the side for the first time in an ODI series as the full-time captain, needed some support at the other end.

Vastrakar, playing in her 23rd ODI, batted like a seasoned pro alongside her captain, re-building the innings. She rotated strike early in her innings, to give the well-settled Kaur more opportunities to score. This calculated counter-attack propelled India to their fourth-highest total against Sri Lanka. Once Kaur got out, Vastrakar changed gears and hammered the opposition captain, Chamari Athapaththu, for two sixes in a row and registered her third ODI half-century.

This is what Vastrakar can do with her caliber. She can come early and bat for a longer time to rescue the innings when needed or she can take full advantage of the death overs to take the total beyond the opposition’s reach. India need that ‘can do it all’ allrounder in their ranks and with these performances, Vastrakar has more or less sealed that spot.

Pooja Vastrakar (L) and Harmanpreet Kaur shared 97-run stand © Sri Lanka Cricket

“You saw the way Pooja batted today,” Kaur lauded her all-rounder in the post-match press conference. “We wanted to put some extra effort (in the final ODI). We are looking for players in the first Playing XI, who are capable of doing both batting and bowling. I think, that position in the batting order suited her well. For now, we want to continue with that. If we think, in the future, there is a need to change something, we will make changes accordingly.”

Captain Kaur has indicated that the team is happy with Vastrakar’s position in the batting order. The management has given her the role of an enforcer in the back end of the innings and Vastrakar is ready to take on that challenge. 

With the ODI World Cup in just three years, the packed schedule of the ICC Championship, and the retirement of some of the dependable players, the transitioning India are going to need a reliable all-weather batter in their ranks. The 22-year-old, with her solid temperament, game awareness, and skills, can stamp her authority to make that spot her own.