Eighteen months after their historic summit clash at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the ICC World T20, India and Australia are set to rekindle their rivalry in a multi-format series starting on Tuesday, 21st September.
Over the years, the rivalry between two of the most dominant sides in world cricket has enthralled millions of fans all across the globe. From Harmanpreet Kaur's blistering knock of an unbeaten 171 in the semi-finals of the 2017 World Cup to Alyssa Healy's destructive 75 off 39 balls in the finale at the MCG, the two sides exhibited skills of the highest calibre to create a revolution and carve a niche for women's cricket at the international stage.
While women's cricket was set to flourish post the high-voltage tournament, the unprecedented chaos and the growing concerns of the pandemic stalled international cricket all over the world.
A year-long hiatus away from the sport, the Indian eves featured in a home series against South Africa in March earlier this year. However, with a lack of competitive cricket and only a handful of practice sessions under their belt before the much-anticipated series, the Indian team struggled to find their mojo and ended up losing the series 4-1.
While they showcased shades of brilliance in a multi-format away series against England, their performance in the ODI leg of the tournament has been a significant cause of concern. In the three matches, barring Mithali Raj, the middle order struggled to get going, resulting in a below-par total on most occasions. The bowling unit, too, failed to create inroads as the visiting side lost the three-match series 2-1.
On the other hand, Australia have featured in a bilateral series against New Zealand at home and away. The Southern stars dominated their oppositions and registered a 3-0 clean sweep on both occasions. With the 50-over World Cup scheduled to commence from 4th March 2022, the Indian eves have their task cut out if they want to replicate their heroics of the 2017 World Cup.
Numbers in powerplay in ODIs since 2018
Despite stumbling in the finale of the T20 World Cup, the Indian team unearthed a star in Shafali Verma at the quadrennial event. The 17-year old along with Smriti Mandhana, has shouldered the bulk of the responsibility of the side in the shortest format of the game.
However, in the ODIs, the team management and skipper Raj opted for Jemimah Rodrigues and Priya Punia to open the innings along with the southpaw. The players were unable to cement their spot as an opener in the side and the growing exploits of Shafali in the T20 format prompted the selectors to hand her an ODI debut in the series against England.
One of the primary reasons for Australia's dominance in women's sport is their settled batting unit and the blazing start provided by Healy and Racheal Haynes in the field restrictions.
Since 2018, India have managed to score a boundary every 10.6 balls with a boundary percentage of 57.5, the worst amongst the top-five teams in the world, while Australia top the charts with a boundary every seven balls and a staggering 66.4 boundary percentage.
While it is early to gauge the impact of Shafali in the 50-over format, her aggressive style of play combined with the calmness possessed by Mandhana can help the Indian team finalise on their opening combination before the showpiece event.
Over the years, the Indian team has struggled to possess a solid middle-order to provide stability and give much-needed impetus in the back end of the innings.
However, for the Indian team with the middle-order comprising of Punam Raut, Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur and Deepti Sharma, one of the critical aspects in the middle overs was the lack of strike rotation. With the field spread and boundaries hard to come by, the middle order of the side has often failed to keep the scoreboard ticking, resulting in enormous pressure on the batsmen to follow.
Since 2018, in the 21 matches played, India have scored at a run rate of 3.7 runs per over, whereas Australia have scored at 4.6 in 19 games with a boundary every 12.9 deliveries.
While Raj will set foot at the ground on the back of four consecutive half-centuries, she has not found a solid partner to strengthen the middle order. In the two series, Raj has amassed 495 runs at an average of 99, while second-best is Raut's 295 runs in six innings. One of the primary reasons for India's struggle in recent times is the inconsistent form of Harmanpreet Kaur.
The vice-captain of the side, barring her unbeaten 171 against Australia and 103 against New Zealand in the 2018 World T20, has been inconsistent with the bat in the past couple of years. The 32-year old's struggle with form and injuries in the recent past has hampered the growth of the team and played a significant role in their inconsistent run with the bat.
Meanwhile, Australia possess a solid middle order with Meg Lanning, Ellyse Perry and Beth Mooney in sublime form. The trio has years of international experience and exposure to guide the team out of challenging situations.
Over dependency on Jhulan Goswami
While India boast of the leading wicket-taker in the 50-over format courtesy of Jhulan Goswami's 236 scalps, the veteran Indian speedster has not found a new ball partner to create inroads in the opposition batting unit.
The right-arm pacer picked up 11 wickets in the series against England and South Africa and looked lethal in her opening spell. However, her new ball partners, Shikha Pandey and Mansi Joshi struggled to find their line and length.
While Shikha made a comeback to the squad against England, Mansi's poor run with only three wickets in the South Africa series resulted in her omission. The pace bowling unit has also been guilty of letting the opposition score at a run rate of 3.8 runs per over with an average of 40.8 balls per wicket.
Despite Goswami, who is known to keep things tight and not leak too many runs, the other pacers have an economy of over 4.5 runs per over making it tough for the captain to stem the flow of runs.
The Australian outfit will be missing out on the services of Megan Schutt in the upcoming series. However, the team will be bolstered by the inclusion of Perry after successfully recovering from a hamstring injury. With years of experience at the international level, the all-rounder will play a pivotal role in guiding the inexperienced pace bowling unit whilst creating an impact.
The road ahead
The series against Australia will give the Indian team plenty of opportunities to tinker with their combinations and find a suitable XI to help them clinch their maiden world title. If India aim to replicate their performances at the world event, they will need to iron out the chinks in their armour, and the tour to the southern hemisphere against quality opposition will test their skills to the hilt.