India Women, led by the immensely experienced Mithali Raj, have some positive things to look back upon as they take on England Women in the one-off Test in Bristol from June 16.
In the last three Tests that India Women played, they have won all of them – two against England Women, both in England (2006, 2014), and one against South Africa Women at home (2014). But, the last of those Tests came way back in November 2014. Since then, it has only been limited-overs formats for India Women.
This year, they will get to play two Tests in the space of three months – against England from June 16 and against Australia Women at the WACA ground, Perth from September 30.
Test matches for women are few and far in between. While England and Australia Women regularly play Tests – their Ashes campaign became a multi-format tournament in 2013 and includes a series of WT20Is, WODIs, and a Test – biannually, it is not the case with other countries including India. Since India Women last played their Test, England Women have played three – all as part of their Ashes series against Australia in 2015, 2017, and 2019 – losing one and drawing the other two.
While England Women may have the experience of playing more Tests than India Women, one cannot take the Indian team lightly. Firstly, they are led by Mithali, who is among the most respected and reputed women cricketers in the world with vast experience of playing all over the world and especially in England, where she scored 214 in a Test way back in 2002 – the second-highest individual score in women’s Tests and the best ever for India Women. The 38-year-old averages 51.00 in her 10 Tests and has four fifties besides the lone three-figure mark.
India Women also have the experienced Jhulan Goswami, also 38 and whose career has run parallel with Mithali. She has appeared in 10 Tests and taken 40 wickets including 23 in four Tests in England. Besides, they have the fearless girls who took the team to the finals of the ICC Women’s World Cup in 2017 and the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in 2020.
And, unlike the last Test in England, captain Mithali would not have to hand over so many maiden Test caps. “The last time we played a Test in England in 2014, I was handing over eight debut caps. It was quite a challenge back then,” Mithali had told news18.com in an exclusive interview in March end.
This time, the entire team is experienced for that Test and much more.
Tushar Arothe, who was the head coach of the Indian women’s team when they finished runner-up in the 2017 Women’s World Cup and who has played English league cricket for two decades, was of the view that Mithali’s team begins the Test as the favourite.
Speaking to news18.com from Baroda, Arothe, who is currently involved in online coaching for England and USA players, said: “Going by the recent statistics, India have the upper hand. Our chances are bright. Quite a few in the team have played in England earlier. Jhulan, Mithali, Smriti Mandhana, Harmanpreet Kaur, Shikha Pandey, Ekta Bisht, Poonam Yadav, Deepti Sharma have prior experience of playing in England.”
Arothe, 54 and former Baroda all-rounder, was concerned about the lack of match practice for Mithali and Co. ahead of the Test.
While the Indian men’s team under Virat Kohli are playing an intra-squad match as part of their preparations for the World Test Championship final, the women’s team are having only net sessions since reaching Southampton and finishing their quarantine period on June 7. They reach Bristol, the venue of the Test, on June 14, two days prior to the match. No amount of net practice and match-like situations can come anywhere near real match practice.
“My only worry is that the girls are short of match practice. Even in bowling, you have to keep delivering at one place, not spray here and there. Playing at least one two-day game before the Test would have helped. The bowlers need to adjust to length. In England, you need to pitch the ball up a little bit, unlike in South Africa or Australia, where you get bounce and can bowl back of length. There is bounce in England but spongy bounce, and one should not get carried away by it in England.”
Arothe had full confidence in the head coach Ramesh Powar’s abilities in bringing the best out of the girls. It was Arothe whom Powar succeeded as the women’s head coach in his first stint in 2018 before being reinstated last month, replacing WV Raman.
Former Indian women’s team coach, Sudha Shah told this website from Chennai that the Indian team was talented enough to do well in the Test.
The 62-year-old Shah, who has played the most number of Tests for an Indian woman, 21 between 1976 and 1991, said: “We have a very talented side. The last time the team played a Test in England, only three of them had previously played in Tests (Mithali, Jhulan, Karuna Jain). As England have been playing regularly, they have the edge. But our girls have been playing limited overs and are quite experienced for that. They should do well. Most of them are used to the shorter version, having grown up in this format. This will take a while but let’s hope they do well.”
Arothe agreed that the girls would take a while to settle down in England. “Quite a few girls are travelling for the first time to England. It is not going to be easy in England. Like they say in cricket, if you succeed in England, you can succeed anywhere else in the world. That said, it is all about how mentally strong you are.
“Mithali and Jhulan are mentally there, no matter what the situation. The ball is in their court and they have to deliver. Smriti is on and off with form, Harman is coming back from an injury, Jemimah is on and off, Punam Raut in good touch,” Arothe said.
Shah agreed that the experience of the players who have been to England before should help and the onus is on Mithali and Jhulan. “Am sure Mithali and Jhulan must be really guiding the youngsters. Mithali and Jhulan are role models, considering the fact that they have been playing for so many years and they still play with the same zest that they started with, hats off to them. Harman, Ekta, Shikha too must be sharing their experiences and guiding the youngsters,” she said.
Shah said that the prevailing situation due to the pandemic may have robbed the Indian women of match practice. “Given the situation, the team must make use of whatever is available. The match situations given at nets will help. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the girls have not had that much match practice after the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2020 except for the Women’s IPL in Dubai and the series against South Africa at home.
“The team should not be dwelling on the fact that they have not had enough matches or enough exposure. They should play afresh and not get overawed by the situation. I know they are looking forward to playing a Test match. They should put their heads down and stick to the basics.”
Shah was the coach when India won their last three Tests in a row. When you look at India’s last five Tests, the record is: 3 won, 1 drawn, 1 lost.
How did the team win in England with eight debutants in 2014? Shah recalled: “England said they would win the toss, bat first, put up a good score and beat India by an innings. But as it turned out, we won the toss and I told the players to set small targets, take it over by over and not look at the final outcome. Niranjana Nagarajan had a dream debut, picking up four for 19 as England were bowled out for 92. We replied with 114, Niranjana top-scoring with 27. I told the girls not to look at the final score. The girls played really well to beat England by six wickets in the end.
“Considering the fact that there were so many debutants, that’s what England would have thought – to beat India big. But we had different ideas. Apart from Niranjana’s dream debut, Shikha gave Mithali a stand (68 unbeaten for the fifth wicket) and hit the winning runs that saw India home by six wickets. It was a match everybody really contributed to the win.”
Shah did not reveal the playing 11 that India should go with in the upcoming Test, saying: “Am sure they will select the best 11 depending on the conditions. Even if the exciting batting prospect Shafali Verma was to be given her maiden cap, she should not change her style of batting”.
On the other hand, Arothe said he would go in with most players who have played Tests before. “Raut and Smriti to open, with Jemimah at No. 3 followed by Mithali, Harman and all-rounder Deepti Sharma at No. 6. Wicketkeeper Taniya Bhatia to be followed by Shikha, Jhulan, Ekta and Poonam Yadav. This has five solid batters, one all-rounder in Deepti, two medium-pacers and two spinners with variety. Yadav bowls slow and away going deliveries while Ekta can also bring the ball into the right-handers. All-rounder Deepti can also bowl off-spin and is one of the best fielders,” Arothe analysed.
The girls must be hoping to perform well and stake a claim for regular Test matches, and not wait for another seven years to play their next match in the whites after the Perth game. That said, the common feeling among the cricket boards is that women’s Test matches are not commercially viable. As Raj suggested in that interview to this website, “all the boards should be playing a one-off Test during bilateral series”, a start has been made now. The points for the series are also given – 4 for a Test win, 2 each for a WT20I and WODI win.
Shah said: “Unfortunately, only Australia and England play Tests regularly. Most countries don’t want to be playing. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Those days, we played a lot of longer-duration games. We played a lot of Tests. Unfortunately, today’s girls are exposed to T20 and 50 overs. If you are a good Test player, you can adapt to any format as long as the technique is good. That is my belief.”