Which part of India’s tour of Sri Lanka was the one to watch out for, the three ODIs or the five T20Is? If you asked this question to anyone who had followed both teams over the past year, most would have said the latter. Yes, the ODIs carried vital ICC Women’s Championship (ICCWC) points, currency with which to buy direct entry into the 2021 World Cup. But Sri Lanka were on an ODI losing streak, and India looked most sure of their plans in that format. So the ODIs were seen as low hanging fruit, the appetiser to the main event three years later. The T20Is, with the WT20 two months away, were the jigsaw that demanded immediate attention. That was where Sri Lanka were expected to be the most threatening.
Instead, the hosts grabbed the spotlight before it could swing to the shortest format. They booked their first ICCWC points with a last-over win in the final ODI, and with some luck would have won the entire series. It has left us salivating for the T20s, a format in which they have bloodied India before.
Flip through the record book and you might be tempted to put money on India. India clean-swept both the ODIs and T20Is the last time Sri Lanka visited. But that was last year; dig deeper, go further back, and you find Sri Lanka’s first ever series win against India, a 2-1 T20I victory on Indian soil in 2014. Two months later, they beat India again in the WT20.
This Sri lankan team has the look of batch 2014. Big-hitting Yasoda Mendis and Eshani Lokasuriyage were seen training with the Sri Lankan ODI squad, and are expected to return to the T20I team. Harsha de Silva, the coach who built the core of this team in 2013, is back for a second stint. Captain Chamari Athapaththu was highest scorer in the ODIs, her century in the third both brilliant and belligerent. Newer names have also impressed: Nilakshi de Silva has established surprise credentials as a big hitter of spin, and the 17-year old Kavisha Dilhari showed spunk with the bat and variety with the ball, and should be given a spot in the XI with an eye on the future. But more than anything, it is the recrudescence of belief in this team, which they showed in the last two ODIs, that is striking.
India have an image to improve: after two losses to Bangladesh cost them both the Asia Cup and a coach, they must reset their approach to T20Is. A few changes in the squad will help. Uncapped pacer Arundhati Reddy -in for the injured Pooja Vastrakar- looked sharp in the nets. The industrious Anuja Patil will compete with off spinner Deepti Sharma for a spot in the XI, but India may play both, considering Sri Lanka have three southpaws in the top order. More critical will be the question of who opens the batting alongside Smriti Mandhana.
India have preferred to use Mithali Raj to open the batting in T20s, following the adage that your best batter should get the most overs. But Mithali’s natural game involves setting a base from which she accelerates; essentially the same way she bats in ODIs condensed to fit the shorter format. This means that the first six overs, where boundary opportunities are the greatest, are not used as effectively from both ends. Instead, Mithali’s ability to pace herself would be invaluable in the middle overs, where her experience might help control a chase. New coach Ramesh Powar, in an interview to Women’s CricZone, said he would be keen to play 18-year old Jemimah Rodrigues, who wasn’t given a single game in the Asia Cup. If he does, she should be given a decent run at the opening slot, where she has shown aptitude in the opportunities thus far.
But perhaps the biggest talking point is that the series will not available on the screens of fans in both countries. After the three ODIs were broadcast on local TV and streamed on YouTube, Sri Lanka Cricket have chosen not to divert resources to the women’s T20Is while the men’s Asia Cup is on. This despite all games being played at timings that don’t clash with the Asia Cup.
It is a huge opportunity lost for a board that has made strides in their development of women’s cricket in the last year: an effort has been made to take the game to schools outside the big cities, with inter-school matches organised, funding and equipment provided, and talented young women absorbed into the system. The teenage Dilhari is said to be a product of this process. With their team in form, and an opponent that commands the largest fan base in the world, one can only wonder how many Dilharis SLC have missed.