In a country with a population of over a billion people, a land where cricket is considered a religion, the 2011 World Cup triumph at home marked a new era in the glorious chapter of India's cricketing history. A couple of years after the Indian team carved their name in the record books, the Women in Blue looked set for their chance to shine on the world stage.
However, a week before the most coveted tournament in the history of women's cricket took centre stage, the news of the matches being moved out of Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai rocked the players and the fans. In a surprising turn of events, the Mumbai Cricket Association requested the BCCI to allow them an opportunity to host the summit clash of the Ranji Trophy featuring the Little Master Sachin Tendulkar against Saurashtra.
In a male-dominated sport, such has been the apathy of the women's team, especially in India, that a World event is shifted days before its commencement only because of a domestic final. While the build-up prior to the event was far from ideal, the Indian eves set foot at the Brabourne Stadium with the sole aim of emulating the heroics of MS Dhoni and Co.
Despite an emphatic win against West Indies in the inaugural match, the Women in Blue struggled all through the tournament and finished second from the bottom. Battered and bruised after a dismal performance at home, they vowed to come back stronger.
The start of something special
Away from the glaring eyes of the media, they diligently went through the gruelling hours of sessions to erase the scars of the world event. With a plethora of changes to the squad that donned the national colours in 2013, it was time for the young generation to take centre stage.
Even before they sojourned to England for the next edition of the World Cup in 2017, our protagonists had to compete in the Qualifiers held in Sri Lanka to stake a claim for themselves. In hindsight, the Qualifiers proved to be a blessing in disguise as the Indian team entered the quadrennial event with plenty of match exposure.
The inaugural match for the Indian team in the 2017 World Cup against England witnessed India's dominance with the bat as the top order led by Smriti Mandhana produced a masterclass to propel the Indian team to 281 runs in the first innings. A clinical bowling performance by the Women in Blue ensured India started their campaign with a 35-run win at Derby. The win not only started the journey of the Indian team in this mega event but also showcased the rise of the Indian team in the last couple of years.
After their dismal performance in the World Cup at home, not many people gave them a chance. Not many people believed they could even win a single match; however, they proved everybody wrong by notching up consistent performances in the league phase of the tournament.
A place in the summit clash of the World Cup and an opportunity to play at the Home of Cricket, the Women in Blue, locked horns with Australia in the semi-finals at Derby.
20th July 2017 marked a new beginning for the women's team as Harmanpreet Kaur carved her name in the record books by smashing an unbeaten 171 in a rain-curtailed match to help the Indian team set a daunting total of 282 runs in 42 overs.
A knock that well and truly changed the face of women's cricket. An innings that propelled the fans all across the globe to stand up and take notice. With a 36-run win against arch-rivals Australia, India were on the brink of creating history against the home team at Lords.
"We want to win the World Cup because it would be a revolution kind of a thing for Indian women's cricket. “It would give a big impetus for young girls to take up the sport," said Mithali Raj in a pre-departure press conference before the World Cup.
Chasing 229 for the coveted title, with a stadium packed to capacity and the expectations of millions of fans back home, there was enormous pressure on the young Indian contingent as they kickstarted their innings.
Despite falling agonisingly short by nine runs, Indian women's cricket created a revolution back home, with thousands of young kids wanting to take up the sport and emulate the heroics of their idol.
Four years after India's rise at the international stage and their heroics in the shortest format of the game, the Women in Blue will be keen to replicate the same and clinch their maiden world title. In a span of five months, the Women in Blue will embark on their journey to New Zealand; however, this time around as one of the most dominant sides in world cricket.
Amidst the four years, the world came to an absolute halt in 2020 due to the pandemic. Days before a national lockdown was announced, the Indian team enthralled a capacity crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the summit clash of the T20 World Cup against Australia.
While the Indian team was at the peak of their potential in the white-ball format, the unprecedented chaos derailed India's plan for an ideal preparation for the World Cup. A year-long break away from the sport resulted in the Indian team struggling to find their mojo at the international level.
With an eye on the World Cup scheduled to commence in March 2022, the home season against South Africa and away tours to England and Australia were the three shoot-outs for the Indian team to finalise their combination before the mega-event.
Time away from the sport is never ideal for any sportsman, and it was evident during the home series against South Africa. With only a handful of practice sessions under their belt before the series, the Women in Blue looked rusty and succumbed to a 4-1 series loss.
While the series against England and the recently concluded three-match ODI series provided plenty of opportunities for the team, they opened up glaring issues that needed immediate attention from Team India. Five months from now, as the young Indian team will set foot for the opening encounter of the World Cup, we take a look at where the team stands right now.
Opening combination - Shafali and Mandhana
Shafali Verma took the cricket world by storm with her exploits at the international level in the shortest format of the game. As baffling as it may sound, the selectors chose to ignore her for the ODI series against South Africa at home.
Despite providing opportunities to Jemimah Rodrigues and Priya Punia, India failed to find a suitable partner for Mandhana at the top of the order in the five games against the Proteas. On the other hand, the 17-year old child prodigy kept piling runs in the shortest format, making it hard for the selectors to ignore her any further.
Post her heroics in the one-off Test against England; she was finally handed a debut in the 50-over format. In the six innings, she has scored 164 runs at a strike rate of 73.87, including a match-winning half-century against Australia in the third ODI.
Along with Smriti Mandhana, she has forged a vital opening combination at the top of the order as the duo amassed 289 runs in their six innings together. A detailed analysis of the table above helps us understand that Mandhana and Verma have been a vital cog in the batting unit and often helped the side with a flying start in the field restrictions. In the 2021 season, the duo has scored at a strike rate of 94.8, which is the best this season.
One of the integral members of the Indian team, Jhulan Goswami, has been the spearhead of the Indian bowling unit for over a decade. While there were question marks revolving around her career post the 2017 World Cup, Goswami has continued to follow her passion and give herself another opportunity to lift the World Cup.
Since the 2017 World Cup, Goswami has been the standout bowler for the Indian team by scalping 45 wickets in 28 innings at an economy rate of 3.7 runs per over. She is among the top-five leading wicket-takers during that period.
Heading into what could probably be her last World event, the onus will be once again on Goswami to guide the young pacers in the side and help the team create early inroads into the opposition batting unit.
Strike Rate in the middle overs (batting innings)
One of the significant factors in India's spectacular performance in the World Cup in 2017 was the stability in the middle order. With Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur and Veda Krishnamurthy, the middle order looked formidable, to say the least.
Since the 2017 World event, Raj has dropped from her usual number three position to allow a youngster an opportunity to cement their place in the squad. While much was expected from Rodrigues in the lead-up to the World Cup, her struggles in the series against South Africa and England have caused the team plenty to ponder moving forward. Another setback for the Indian team is the lack of consistency from vice-captain Harmanpreet.
Ever since her unbeaten knock of 171, the 32-year old has failed to put any substantial contribution for the side in the middle order. Harman’s lack of form and inexperience in the middle order has often led to Mithali Raj playing the role of an anchor in the middle overs, often at the cost of innings momentum.
Since 2018, India have been at the second from bottom in terms of the scoring rate for the middle order among the top-five teams in the world. In the 23 innings, the Indian team has scored at a run rate of 4.2 with a boundary per ball ratio of 14.5, which is marginally better than South Africa’s 14.7 boundary per ball ratio.
Another significant factor in India's dismal performance in the middle overs is the inability of Raj and Deepti Sharma to keep the scoreboard ticking. Among players with a minimum of 300 runs after the 2017 World Cup in the overs 15-40, Raj and Sharma have a strike rate of 65.1 and 58.4 respectively, which are in the bottom two among the list of 20 players.
Lack of wickets by spinners
While India have always been a spin-dominating bowling attack, the spinners have failed to weave their magic in the last couple of series. In the 2021 season, the spinners have conceded at an economy rate of 4.9 runs per over, making it difficult for Raj to stem the flow of runs in the middle overs.
Apart from the average of 55.3, which is a touch better than the White Ferns, the Indian side has a balls per wicket record of 67.7 and managed to pick up 24 wickets, lower than any other side in the season. With a lack of inroads in the middle overs, the opposition batters often put up massive first-innings totals or cruises towards the target in case of a run chase.
The emergence of young talent
An injury to Harmanpreet before the three-match series against Australia provided the Indian team with an ideal opportunity to test some of the young players in the squad.
Over the years, while most of the batting has revolved around Raj and Harmanpreet, the three-match series against the Aussies showcased glimpses of the batting prowess of the youngsters as they bailed the side out of challenging situations.
The emergence of Yastika Bhatia and Richa Ghosh in the batting unit and their ability to take on the opposition bowling unit from the get-go might solve India's middle-order conundrum.
One of the primary areas of concern for the Indian team heading into the World Cup is the standard of fielding by the young side.
In the three-match series, India was let down by their fielding in the second ODI as plenty of youngsters failed to collect the ball cleanly and often allowed the batters to get an additional run. The dramatic final over too witnessed misfields and overthrows that led to the downfall of the Indian side.
Over dependency on Goswami
One of the significant areas of concern for the Indian team heading into this iconic event is the lack of depth in the pace bowling department. While the Indian team has the leading wicket-taker in the history of 50-over cricket in their ranks, the 38-year old has not found an able partner to share the responsibility of the side with the new ball.
In the 2021 season across three series, Goswami has been the pick of the India pacers by scalping 15 wickets at an economy rate of 3.8. While she looked lethal with the new ball, the same cannot be said about the other pacers tried by the Indian team.
Over the years, Shikha Pandey was assigned the role of sharing the new ball with Goswami; however, a dip in her form resulted in her exclusion from the Indian team for the home series against South Africa. Despite making a comeback into the side for the matches against England, she endured a horrific run and managed to pick up two wickets in the three games.
Another glaring issue that Team India need to address is the runs leaked by the pace bowling unit. While Goswami bowls a tight line and length, all the other pacers have an economy of over 4.5, making it challenging for the skipper to stifle the opposition batting unit.
The pressure of a World event
While most of the talk surrounding the Indian team is about the firepower in the middle order and the lack of wickets by the spinners, the team management will need to address the inability of the Indian players to absorb the pressure in high-voltage tournaments.
Many cricketing pundits are often heard saying, just treat the finale like any other game. However, as cliche it may sound, it is not easy to compete at the international level without any pressure and just go with the flow.
With the stadium packed to capacity and the support of the crowd, the expectation of the millions of people back home and a chance to rewrite history books, there is an enormous amount of pressure on the players as they step onto the field.
The art of handling pressure has been one of the most critical aspects for the Indian team in the past couple of years. In the World Cup 2017, and the T20 World Cups in 2018 and 2020, the Women in Blue have managed to reach the knockout stages of the competition. However, on all three occasions, the pressure of the event and the gravity of the situation got the better of them.
"The way we played in the league games was outstanding. Today it was unfortunate that we dropped those catches, " said Harmanpreet after India suffered an 85-run loss in the finals at the MCG.
While they had an outstanding campaign since the 2017 World Cup, a minor tweak in their mindset heading into the knockout stages of the competition can help them create magic.