Reactions to India’s loss against South Africa – fair or unfair?

Team India thanking the fans in the stands. © BCCI

Wasn’t it great to see the Indian team back on the field after a year? After the heartbreaking loss in the T20 World Cup 2020 final, they had to wait 364 days before playing their next match. The sight of Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami back in the blue and the audacious Shafali Verma taking on Shabnim Ismail was a thrilling experience. While the results in the series against South Africa might not have gone in favour of the hosts, it was indeed heartening to see India back playing. 

The last time India lost a five-match ODI series, by a margin of 1-4 or more, was in 2008 against Australia. Since then, they have played five bilateral series with as many matches in each and have won three of those. Which is why, when India lost the ODI series 1-4 and the T20I series 1-2, they had to face some strong criticism. 

Critique for bad performances should come with some constructive feedback. But is it fair to judge the Indian team and the players based on one series loss? 

Questionable squad selection

Even before the series began, the sparks and debates began regarding the selection of the squad. A lot was written and discussed in the pursuit of understanding the logic behind the selection without much success. We, at Women’s CricZone, made a video to embellish the reason behind leaving out Ekta Bisht, Shikha Pandey and Tanya Bhatia. Both the skippers gave quite a few reasons ahead of the series regarding the selection. 

One could also argue that selection is not the be-all and end-all of it, and the players, who are in the squad, are good enough to represent India. I’m sure they are, but when you experiment with selection, should not there be some leniency as to back the players and give them time to do well. It was an extremely good South Africa side, who were coming off a series win against Pakistan at home.

 

Well, the good thing is the senior players and the team management have come out and backed the players even after the defeat. Head coach WV Raman said that the players would get better as they play more matches after the ODI series. Certainly, they did. It was incredible to see them dominate in the third T20I. And we are yet to find out what is next on India’s schedule.

Lack of game-time for India

We have often heard cricketers, both men and women, talk about the difference between match-practice and training in the nets. It has been reiterated by many players that the former is far more difficult and different from the latter, and logically so. Let us see what was the case ahead of the India-South Africa series.

Laura Wolvaardt, Shabnim Ismail, Lizelle Lee, Marizanne Kapp, and Mignon du Preez were a part of the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia, and Sune Luus and Ayabonga Khakha played in the Women’s T20 Challenge. They, along with other domestic stars, played the Women’s Super League at home, followed by three ODIs and three T20Is against Pakistan. The senior players had played at least 20 matches cumulatively, including domestic and international fixtures before the India tour.

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Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Goswami and Poonam Yadav – the five players, who form the core of this Indian team in ODIs, had not played any matches since the pandemic broke out, barring those three matches in the Women’s T20 Challenge. Meanwhile, Jemimah Rodrigues, Deepti Sharma, Radha Yadav, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, and Punam Raut played academy tournaments in Bangalore and a few other cities. 

Ahead of the series, both Sune Luus and South Africa head coach Hilton Moreeng were counting on the training camps and the match-practice to give them an advantage. “We have had game-time behind us, and I do not think they have had that, which I am hoping will be an advantage for us,” Luus said, while Moreeng felt that the players were exposed to the bubble-life and the conditions in Durban during the Pakistan series were helpful in their preparation.

These small things – the training camps, having some game-time – do make a difference in any sport, especially cricket. Coming back from long breaks and injuries are hard. Any player would need some game-time before getting into the groove. And let us not forget that India lost Kaur to injury before the T20I series. To say that the players have to outperform the in-form South Africa and win on the go, despite coming back after a year from lockdown, without any match-practice seems a far-stretch and unfair on the players. 

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After all, they did get better as the series progressed. We saw Raut shine through the series, while Gayakwad, Mandhana and Shafali showed what they can do by the end of the series. There were glimpses of Richa Ghosh, Simran Dil Bahadur and Harleen Deol in the T20Is as well.

The stand-in T20I skipper Mandhana said that they came together as a group before the final T20I. After the match, she said, “We are going to go back home with a positive mind and then we will be in a positive frame of mind whenever we play the next series, so this match in that context is really important for us.”

Recently, New Zealand lost both the ODI and T20I series against England, and as a result, they coped with a fair bit of criticism. It seemed valid as their players were continuously playing since the tour of Australia in September last year, followed by the WBBL and their domestic season. Going into the series, it seemed like the momentum was with the hosts. And yet, they lost the series. If such would have been the case with India, then one might say that they deserve every bit of the criticism they get. Well, it isn’t.

We all are fans of this incredible sport, and we all want to see the players do well and win. When the results do not go the way we want, we tend to compare performances between teams. While doing so, we ought to be fair to them by taking into account the privileges and opportunities, or the lack of them, between the two teams. It is even more crucial in any women’s sport. For example, if one were to compare the Indian women’s with that of their male counterparts, the latter have been continuously playing since last August, travelling from one bio-bubble to another till now. They are likely to continue till the end of this year’s IPL. While comparing the performances, we need to consider the number of matches either have played. 

Women’s T20 Challenge – a three-team affair?

After the series loss against South Africa, experienced sports journalist Boria Majumdar said on The Outside View that this year’s Women’s T20 Challenge is likely to be a three-team affair. “This year, because of the South Africa defeat in T20I and ODIs, we might have lost the opportunity of adding a new team,” he said. While the BCCI has not confirmed anything, one would hope that it is not the case.

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The pandemic has been a huge stop to India’s momentum after their performances in the T20 World Cup. Since then, they have played only eight matches, and that too, after a year’s gap. To judge them based on this series defeat and decide on the future of the Women’s T20 Challenge would defy logic and compassion. 

The good news is that the players, team management or the administrators have not spoken anything officially on the same lines, at least so far. And I hope that it remains the case. We saw what the likes of Shafali, Deol, Dil Bahadur, and Ghosh are capable of during the T20I series. Even Mandhana got her rhythm back and played her natural attacking game in the final T20I.

Shafali, who smashed 60 runs from 30 balls in the final T20I, said, “When I went in to bat, I wanted to make sure I bat well because this is the last match for me. There is some time before the next series, so I wanted to do my best and do well for the team and score well.” Though the teenage prodigy’s exclusion in ODIs stirred a debate, she seemed to be level-headed about it, ready to grab the opportunity as and when it comes. It shows the maturity of the young players and what they can do with more matches to play.

There are so many such young talents in the domestic circuit waiting for opportunities. The more they get to play in pressure situations, the better it is for Indian cricket. A full-fledged women’s IPL might not happen immediately, but the time has come to make some progress towards it. To postpone it, because of the Indian team’s performance in one series, would be unfair to the players, fans and Indian cricket.

It is the same team that won silver medals in the previous World Cups across formats. They deserve some empathy before jumping the gun based on one series loss, which came after a year break, don’t they?