It may well be the dawn of a new era in Indian Women’s cricket but there’s also an overriding sense of stability in this fresh start. At least in T20Is – where the Birmingham Commonwealth Games debut and 2023 World Cup beckons inside eight months – there’s little that’s changing for Harmanpreet & Co. And they must hit the ground running, for this three-match T20I series against hosts Sri Lanka is all they get in preparation to freeze down their ideal combination.
To that effect, both Harmanpreet Kaur and head coach Ramesh Powar had indicated before departure and the captain reiterated from Dambulla – the venue of the T20I series – that the likely combination the team has in mind will get a consistent run to be able to put their best foot forward and nail a CWG spot for themselves. The spotlight, thus, falls on comeback girls Jemimah Rodrigues – the star of the inaugural ‘The Hundred’ who failed to earn back her ODI spot for New Zealand World Cup – and Sabbhineni Meghana, who dazzled as a backup in New Zealand on her international comeback after six years in the wilderness. As India fall back into almost settled T20I mold, the former is all but confirmed to reclaim her one-drop spot in the T20I set up after what had been a turbulent last season.
“She’s someone who’s very experienced. I know she was not a part of the [ODI] World Cup squad recently, but she’s someone who had done really well in the T20 side, “Harmanpreet said on the eve of the curtain raiser, nearly signaling her return.” Whatever opportunities have come her way, she’s always ready to gab. For me it’s very important to keep talking to the players whatever, you know, you’re planning. Because we only have three games here and it’s really difficult to give each and everyone equal opportunities. We’ll try to cover all the areas where everyone can say they’ve got enough chances to prepare themselves to perform for the team. “
With Sneh Rana “rested”, Harmanpreet and, now to an extent, finishers Pooja Vastrakar and Radha Yadav are the only role-specific middle-order options in the side that’s brimming with some high-performing specialist openers of the domestic circuit. But over the years, India has learned to extract the best out of them – no one a better example of their retrofitting experiments than Rodrigues, or Yastika Bhatiawho’s proven her adaptability at the highest level
Armed with these prospects, Harmanpreet has the confidence that her side can address the long-standing concern of sustaining momentum in the face of the failure of one or both of their explosive openers.
But more than their batting, which bears more or less a settled look, it’s the relative inexperience of their fast-bowling that will be tested thoroughly. India, or the selectors at least, have moved in a very specific youth-centric direction with respect to at least the pace department over the last 15 months with even an experienced and performing Shikha Pandey struggling to stave off competition. And given that the two global tournaments looming are in the UK and South Africa, the face-off among the four quicks on tour would be the one to watch out for in this short prep.
The long-term goal, however, remains inculcating the winning habit that Powar has repeatedly spoken of ever since taking over for a second stint with the team last season. Ever since the heartbreak of the 2016 home World Cup, and the subsequent shift in mindset beginning with a captaincy change, T20 has been the format India have improved leaps and bounds in – even looked every inch a world-beating unit on their day. But the trophy drought has continued after a handful of excruciating near-misses.
“After the World Cup, we got some time to speak to VVS [Laxman] sir (Head of Cricket). The NCA has shown no interest in helping our women’s team improve and grow. We got the chance to speak to them and have a chat about the areas we can improve on. This was the first time we got such an opportunity, “Harmanpreet said of the role Laxman’s team played in their brief one-week NCA fitness camp before departure.
“He motivated us a lot with anecdotes from his time on how the Indian [men’s] team went through the phase when they had to work on and improve their fielding and fitness. On how all of them individually put in their extra 10 per cent effort. Then we also discussed as a team that how we can put that extra bit of effort as a unit over two sessions. He was there throughout the camp and he was constantly talking to us. You need those people around who can motivate you and who can push you to improve. As a team we are very happy that he was there and he was continuously giving us inputs and suggestions. “
Now, they get to put to work these new lessons learned and, incidentally, could also potentially pick up a lesson or two on resilience from their ‘transitioning’ opponents.
In times of great political and economic strife across the length and breath of the country, cricket has come as a soothing distraction for the Sri Lankans. What the women’s team went through in the last couple of years probably pales in comparison to the trials and tribulations of the common man, but was a travesty nonetheless.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a cascading effect on the already fragile health of women’s cricket in the island nation. Following their group stage exit at the T20 WC in Australia in March 2020, Athapaththu’s team went 22 months without a T20I until the CWG 2022 qualifiers in January this year, and had to dive head first into the 2021 ODI World Cup Qualifiers after a full two years off field. Stripped of any international action, they fell in the rankings, and fatally enough to not even remain in contention for a backdoor entry when the qualifying tournament had to be called off in the wake of the Omicron variant.
Ironically, they bounced back from the setback to seal the final berth at Birmingham 2022 by knocking out the very team that pipped them to the final World Cup spot – Bangladesh. Since then, they’ve been whitewashed convincingly by Pakistan in three low-scoring T20Is and would have likely met the same fate in their opening round of ICC Women’s ODI Championship 2022-25 if not for their talismanic captain’s counterattacking century in Karachi.
Cricket may be a team game but some individuals have always defied that notion. Athapaththu is one of them, being the common denominator in many of her team’s recent victories and winning some almost single-handedly. As long as she’s there, Sri Lanka are always in with a shout. Much to her delight though, that narrative is slowly and steadily shifting.
Athapaththu reserved high praise for her deputy Harshitha Madavi, with whom she stitched a 152-run stand in their 93-run victory over Pakistan, young spin-bowling allrounder Kavisha Dilhari who as an 17-year-old debutant made heads turn against this very opposition, veteran off-spinner Oshadi Ranasinghe, who picked six T20I wickets at an average of just 9, and teenage sensations Vishmi Gunaratne (top-order batter) and Rashmi de Silva (legspinner) who have both impressed in the domestic season.
With a little bit of more spunk in their batting, Athapaththu believes, her team can beat India ‘in a game or two’ if they play to their potential. “We have to improve our batting, we have quite a few young players, but they do not have experience, so this is their opportunity to showcase their talent in this format [ahead of CWG selection].
“We have to improve our fielding as well because catches win matches. The main thing is batting, so the batting coach has been working on that area, and hopefully, we can improve on that front in the series … This is a tough tour, but if we play to our potential, we can beat India. “
Teams, including India on their previous trip, have learned it the hard way that Sri Lanka can prove a handful just when it starts to look like they have no fight left in them. India indeed still go in as overwhelming favorites but In their own bubble, away from the tense atmosphere that engulfs the island, and just like their male counterparts have been doing over the last fortnight, Athapaththu & Co. would be hoping to similarly create their own happiness, however temporary.
Sri Lanka:Chamari Athapaththu (c), Hasini Perera, Kavisha Dilhari, Nilakshi de Silva, Anushka Sanjeevani (wk), Oshadhi Ranasinghe, Sugandika Kumari, Inoka Ranaweera, Achini Kulasuriya, Harshitha Madavi (VC), Vishmi Kanhahaana Uani, Prabodhani, Rashmi de Silva, Hansima Karunaratne, Kaushani Nuthyangana (wk), Sathya Sandeepani, Tharika Sewwandi
India: Harmanpreet Kaur (C), Smriti Mandhana (VC), Shafali Verma, Yastika Bhatia (wk), S Meghna, Deepti Sharma, Poonam Yadav, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Simran Bahadur, Richa Ghosh (wk), Pooja Vastrakar, Meghna Singh, Renuka , Jemimah Rodrigues, Radha Yadav.