The Mithali Raj-led Indian cricket team got their ICC Women's Cricket World Cup 2022 campaign up and running on Sunday as they extended their dominance over arch-rivals, Pakistan, with a clinical 107-run victory.
At one stage, when India managed just 18 runs in 11 overs at the cost of four wickets, the chances of being competitive in the game, let alone winning it, looked extremely bleak. Once again, the underperforming middle-order and the sheer lack of intent from Mithali and Harmanpreet Kaur was exposed to the hilt.
However, a record-breaking 122-run-stand between Pooja Vastrakar (67 off 59 deliveries) and Sneh Rana (53* off 48 deliveries) pulled the Women in Blue from the dead and then an all-round bowling effort-led by Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Jhulan Goswami did the rest.
But, let’s be honest, India need to address their batting approach in the middle-overs if they want to end their drought of having not won a World Cup as tougher challenges await them in the form of New Zealand, Australia, England and the Proteas.
"Not only would it mean so much for the players and our families, but it would make a real difference for all our fans back home in India, where there is already great anticipation for a Women’s IPL"
This is what Mithali Raj said ahead of her sides' 50-over World Cup campaign in New Zealand. Mithali has been around forever and over the course of her decorated career, she has seen a lot.
She has felt soul crushing lows, she has seen incredible highs as a batter as well as a member of the Indian team; she has witnessed agony of the highest order in 2005 and 2017 where India came close to having their 1983 moment. She has also witnessed the change in attitude and the overall perception towards Women's Cricket. Mithali knows that this is her last shot at glory. She also knows what a WC triumph could do for women’s cricket in this country.
Women cricket is bigger than ever right now. If you compare the hype around this tournament with the one that took place in England five years ago, you can clearly see the difference. Back then, barely a handful journalists bothered to cover Mithali's Press-conference prior to the marquee event.
This time, fans and several other women’s cricket-based websites have made it a point to hype up the tournament with plenty of insightful pieces, statistics, promo edits and heartfelt posts for the Women in Blue.
So, what has changed between the start of the last 50-over World Cup and this one? And is it enough or do we still have a long way to go?
To answer the first question, it's India's performance in world events and the emergence of young talents like Shafali Verma, Yastika Bhatia, A Meghana, Richa Ghosh etc, plus the ever-rising stock of Smriti Mandhana, who, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say, is the biggest poster girl for women's cricket in India today and one of the biggest ambassadors of it globally.
India may not have won a single ICC event yet but their performances in the global events in the last 5 years have been exceptional. Besides ending up as runners-up in the 2017 event, the Women in Blue finished as semi-finalists and finalists in the last two T20 World Cups.
But, is it enough?
No, it isn't! As we all know, for cricket to thrive, India's success - because of its huge market and finances - is imperative. While the women's game has evolved beyond recognition in the last decade, with more and more franchise tournaments being played in countries like England, Australia, and possibly Pakistan from next year, it still hasn't achieved its watershed moment.
That watershed moment in terms of overall expansion of women's cricket in terms of tournaments, and finances, and fan interest, isn't possible until India become world beaters like in the men's game.
This is perhaps why the ecosystem has been calling for the BCCI to start the Women's IPL, as it will not only pump money in the system, but will also help give exposure to a whole host of talented young girls, not only in this country but globally.
While the administrators continue to 'promise' starting the Women IPL, the World Cup offers a chance for Mithali and co to put their strongest possible case forward by scripting their very own 1983 moment.
We all know how the BCCI were averse to the ODI format back in the day but that all changed the moment India won the Cup in 1983. That's the thing with winning, you see! Winning a global event not only elevates the player to stratospheric levels, it also brings a tsunami of new fans into the sport.
Does Mithali and Co have it in them to win the title?
This is a tricky question. In terms of potential and recent record in ICC events, of course, they have it in them to script history, even though Australia are run-away favourites.
But, it's not going to be an easy ride, as has been evident from their performances in the last 24 months. Indian Women's cricket has been one of the many collateral damages because of the pandemic.
The women's team had to wait for close to 12 months before they got to play an international series post the pandemic lockdown. And, since then , the scheduling or the lack of it has ensured that the team did not get enough games or continuity to zero in on a winning combination.
Factor into this, since their tour of Australia in September 2021, Indian women did not play a single international game till as late as February 2022.
And the rustiness clearly showed in their first few games against New Zealand. But that can't be the only reason why India have struggled to get going in the 50-over format since the pandemic.
The reasons are manifold. Firstly, let's come to the batting. Just like their (men's) counterpart, India has a solid opening pair in the form of Smriti Mandhana and Shafali Verma, who have regularly given their side a brisk start.
Mandhana has been the leading run-scorer for India during the 5-year cycle with 1528 runs in 32 innings @ 54.57/90.57 with the help of 16 50+ scores and two hundreds; while Shafali, even though her form has been patchy of late, has contributed towards the side getting off to great starts.
Also, Yastika Bhatia and Meghana (even though she is not in the World Cup squad) have shown enough promise and intent. The problem for India has been the senior duo of Mithali and Harmanpreet Kaur.
While Mithali has been the epitome of consistency (she has averaged 50+ since the last WC), those runs have come at the expense of strike-rate (65.28) which isn't in sync with the modern demands of the game. That said, Raj did show signs of positive intent in the recent series against New Zealand. However, she was back to her sedate best against Pakistan, sucking all the momentum of the innings before getting dismissed for a 36-ball 9.
Harman's case has been even more dire. Since the last WC, she has managed just 639 runs @ 27.28 and a strike rate of a shade under 70. Her place came under intense scrutiny during the recent series but a match-winning half-century in the last ODI and a hundred in the warm-up game against South Africa suggested that she may be peaking at the right time. But, then, she failed again in the opening game against Pakistan.
For India to do well in this WC, it is absolutely imperative that their three big guns: Smriti, Harman and Mithali, lead from the front with the bat.
If these three do well, then India has enough flair in the form of Shafali, Yastika, Pooja Vastrakar and Sneh Rana and the ever-so impressive Richa Ghosh to hurt the opposition. Although, Shafali’s poor form is slowly becoming a concern after the teeanger registered a duck on Sunday.
Yuvraj Singh played a massive role in India winning the 2011 WC. Deepti Sharma almost did the same for the women's team back in 2017, as she scored 216 runs besides taking 12 scalps in 9 games.
The spin-bowling all-rounder topped the wicket-taking charts in the recent series against New Zealand- 10 wickets in 5 games and has started well in this WC courtesy of an all-round outing (40 & 1/31) against Pakistan.
This brings us to India's bowling. The seam-bowling department will once again be led by arguably the greatest fast bowler that women cricket has witnessed in Jhulan Goswami.
Goswami, with 38 scalps, is the joint second-highest wicket-taker in WC history and she needs just 2 more to top the charts. The tall lanky seamer has been at the peak of her powers in the last few years and has regularly provided India with early breakthroughs.
The onus will once again be on her to lead the attack in this World Cup given the fact that India lacks significant depth in this department. Pooja Vastrakar and Renuka Singh have shown sparks at different stages but they will have to ensure that they provide able support to Goswami from the other end. Vastrakar did not bowl on Sunday following an injury she suffered during her match-winning knock.
India's bowling in the middle-overs, and especially at the death, is a huge cause for concern. With Goswami not a renowned death bowler and other seamers being inexperienced, Mithali will be forced to use her spinners in the final 5, which is where the likes of Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Poonam Yadav and Deepti Sharma will have a massive role to play. Gayakwad was brilliant against Pakistan, claiming 4/31 in 10 overs.
Lastly, if there is one thing that India needs to ensure doesn't happen, it's the fielding lapses, especially at a crucial juncture in a game. The Women in Blue have often been guilty of doing that and it's something that could prove to be fatal for them in a crunch game.
The start has been good but at the end of the day, it’s how you finish that matters. And, honestly, it’s the approach towards batting-led by Mithali, which stands between them and World Cup glory.