“We are looking forward to a fresh start,” said Indian head coach Amol Muzumdar before the beginning of the short international women's season.
The idea of a clean slate is quite a fascinating one. No old baggage. Only the wide green world of possibilities remains under a rainbow sky, with unicorns prancing in the foreground.
Alas, the reality is that no start is a fresh start. Human beings are doomed to carry the past. If it doesn’t happen in a physical form, it surely does in a mental one. You might even call it a ghost that never leaves you back. 'Vikram Betal‘ quite literally was onto something, wasn’t it?
The story of Indian women’s cricket short international season isn’t very different. After a long hiatus from international cricket after the Bangladesh tour in July, they were scheduled to play a back-to-back multi-format bilateral series against England and Australia. They also got a new head coach, Amol Muzumdar, who joined after a successful stint with the Mumbai Ranji team.
Things were looking all yellow for the Indian women cricketers after a long time. There was a coach who was talking about a fresh start and putting a lot of focus on the two biggest F-bombs for the team - fielding and fitness.
When the season started with the T20Is against England, there were visible improvements in the ground fielding, but catching was still an issue in the field. India were given a proper hiding in the first two games, and it was clear that shoddy bowling, butterfingers and a batting choke in the middle overs choke had trapped Harmanpreet’s team in a trifecta of mediocrity.
It was a game that should have been immortalised because of a 20-year-old’s innings of 96 off 117 balls, which belied her age and displayed her elite temperament. But it became a game that would now be remembered for India’s three-run defeat and seven dropped catches.
It was one of those rare days when the Indian bowling unit, especially the spinners, were in business on a helpful pitch. Deepti Sharma’s guile in the air and movement off the pitch were too hot to handle for the Aussies. She picked up a fifer, and Australians had no business scoring above 200 after that bowling display. However, they scored 58, more than 200, because the Indian fielders couldn’t even catch a cold that day, forget cricket balls.
Seven dropped catches are no joke. They derail your bowling plans, demotivate your bowlers, and essentially take away one form of dismissal from the team.
It’s like cutting the branch of the tree you were supposed to sit on. The Indian women did that religiously across the nine white ball games they played. They did come back on the field in the T20I series against Australia but still left a lot to be desired.
Coming back to the batting now, chasing 259, India were properly in the game until Richa Ghosh, batting at number three, was at the crease and pacing the chase nicely. When she got out just four short of a century to a spectacular catch by Phoebe Litchfield, India needed 41 runs in 37 balls. Fielding made a difference for Australia in the end, you see.
With Deepti Sharma, Pooja Vastrakar, Harleen Deol, Shreyanka Patil and Amanjot Kaur left to bat, that should have been a cakewalk. But Deepti could only score 24 off 36, and the rest had too much to do by the end. India fell three runs short at the end.
The chase revealed another big problem India has been dealing with without solving – their batting order in white-ball formats remains an unexplained mystery. I can call it the Bermuda Triangle, but even that has a defined shape in its name itself. One can’t say the same about the Indian batting order.
Why was Deepti Sharma batting at six throughout the white ball games despite her finishing skills not being up to the mark? Why wasn’t Shreyanka Patil used better as a batter despite showing the intent to score quickly (which is missing from most others)?
It may feel like questions of this form have been asked by fans to the team management of the Indian women’s team for time immemorial now, but despite having all the expertise of the world on their hands, people still haven’t found the requisite explanation.
Winning just two limited-overs games out of nine against the two best teams of the world is a clear indication that despite the recent serendipity dissipating some of the thick foggy doom that surrounds Indian women’s cricket, playing under pressure is something which Harmanpreet Kaur and Co. need to work on seriously.
It’s even more evident when you consider their performance in the two Test matches, where they had more time at their hands and displayed their technical skills of the game in all its resplendent glory. Young Indian batters, especially the likes of Shubha Satheesh, Jemimah Rodrigues, Yastika Bhatia, and Richa Ghosh, showed their ability to grind out sessions, absorb pressure, and counter-attack. They were a level above their opposition, who succumbed to the novelty of conditions as much as the skills of the Indian players.
It was like watching a different Indian team altogether. They weren’t clumsy in the field; they bowled to their plans and their strategising was all on point. After the defeat against England in T20Is, India’s victorious turn in the two Tests gave a flickering hope that maybe, just maybe, Amol Muzumdar’s team management has managed to turn this team around for good.
However, forget Rome; even Ranchi wasn’t built in a day.
To expect that a new head coach, even though an acclaimed one at that, is unfair. What seems to be working is that Muzumdar is still focused on the two F-bombs of Indian women’s cricket - fielding and fitness. He isn’t looking for some non-existent positives in a performance that left much to be desired.
"In white-ball cricket, we really need to focus on our fielding and our fitness. And hopefully in the following months, I will get a chance to work on it. Those are some areas we have identified as a group to raise the bar,” Muzumdar said after the end of the season.
The Indian women covered a lot of distance in these one-and-a-half months. However, the lack of regular games is still a big impediment to the growth of this team. Even in 2024, the Indian women will have to wait more than six months for their next international assignment (Asia Cup). The second edition of the Women’s Premier League is the only piece o competitive cricket scheduled for them in this period.
Amidst this haphazard mess of hope, gloom and perpetual wait that surrounds Indian women’s cricket, one can only hope that their displacement isn’t zero after another season of international cricket.
Deepti ‘Stokes’ Sharma hopes to overturn batting fortunes in 2024 WPL
Biju George Interview: 'Impact players should be backed more in Indian setup'
Richa at No. 3 is jackpot, but India can't trust Deepti as finisher
2023: A year of women’s cricket
Gaurav Nandan Tripathi
The anatomy of England's demolition
Gaurav Nandan Tripathi
All-round strength in focus as India gets ready for England
Gaurav Nandan Tripathi
The anatomy of India’s eternally recurring heartbreaks
Gaurav Nandan Tripathi
Ten teams, one trophy and a chance for India to rewrite history
Moments that defined women's cricket this year