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Women’s T20 Challenger a Reminder of Need to Nurture Upcoming Talent

Sidhanta Patnaik |Cricketnext |November 5, 2018, 11:48 PM IST
Women’s T20 Challenger a Reminder of Need to Nurture Upcoming Talent

Bangalore: The six low-scoring league games of the Women’s Twenty20 Challenger Trophy, which marked the start of the 2018-19 domestic season, at the Karnataka State Cricket Association’s Alur facility had lowered expectations.

The highest score in these matches had been India Red’s 114 for 8 on the third day of the competition. One excuse was that the pitches had been under cover because of the rain and the moisture had made them low and slow. At least one member of the support staff believed it was an appropriate preparation for the upcoming tour of Sri Lanka where the surfaces will be of similar nature. Another school of thought was that the batting was atrocious.

India Green led by Veda Krishnamurthy had been dismissed for 46 and 51 in their last two league games and crashed out of the race for a place in the final. Only two batters had made half-centuries, both for India Blue – Mithali Raj’s run-a-ball 51 in a loss against India Red on the first day and VR Vanitha’s 45-ball 51 in a win against the same opposition in the return fixture.

India Blue skippers - Mithali and Anuja - receiving the trophy from Sanjay Desai, KSCA President. (Image: Karunya Keshav) India Blue skippers - Mithali and Anuja - receiving the trophy from Sanjay Desai, KSCA President. (Image: Karunya Keshav)

True, Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur were unavailable because of their Kia Super League commitments in England, but with the World T20 in the Caribbean in November such low scores and lack of sparkling individual batting performances raised more questions than providing answers.

All cynicism, however, went out of the window for three hours on a bright Tuesday (August 21) as the final between India Blue and India Red proved to be a good batting contest before Blue – without their regular captain Mithali who had spasm – prevailed by four runs.

Put into bat on easily on the best batting pitch of the tournament, Blue’s opening pair of D Hemalata and Vanitha played their strokes with freedom much to the delight of a decent local crowd. While Hemalata focussed on placing the ball in the gap, Vanitha, as is her wont, was the aggressor, hitting two sixes and two fours in her 25-ball 28. The pair put on 54 – only the second fifty stand of the tournament – before Vanitha was stumped in the first over from Tanjua Kanwer, the Himachal Pradesh left-arm spinner. Taniya Bhatia too enjoyed the pace off the surface to make 28 off 17 balls from No.4 after walking in at 57 for 2.

The impressive part of the 38-run stand between Hemalata and Bhatia was that they were looking to keep the scoreboard moving by tapping and running, a trait not associated with all Indian batters.

Shikha Pandey, who bowled well, had Bhatia caught at short third-man with a slower ball as Blue became 95 for 3 in 15 overs. The test then for Blue was to finish strongly, but it was not to be even though Hemalata made 48 before being run out off the last ball of the 19th over.

Having restricted Blue to 131 for 7, thanks largely to Ekta Bisht’s restrictive bowling, Red needed a strong start to their chase. Openers Deepti Sharma, the captain, and Punam Raut put on 87 in 14.3 overs – the best partnership of the tournament partly assisted by some sloppy fielding. Deepti hit the shot of the match when she went down on her knee to slog sweep Mansi Joshi, the right-arm pacer, over the midwicket fence. The kind of approach that indicates the work that a player has put in the offseason to add new element to her game.

The intent of Deepti, one of Wisden India Almanack’s Cricketer of the Year for 2018, to go after the new ball in the Power Play overs with strokes all around the wicket was striking. She made 45 before Anuja, the tournament’s highest wicket-taker with eight scalps, dismissed her to turn the game around. Deepti, however, had done enough to get everyone thinking if she could be an extra opening option for India in T20Is.

Raut was equally impressive. She packed a punch into her shots and was deft with her touch play, hitting five fours and two sixes on her way to 52 – the tournament’s best individual score. Earlier this year, Raut’s slow approach had been criticised after Railways failed to win the 2017-18 inter-state T20 Championship. To come from there and finish at the top of the batting charts with 135 runs in five matches is a definite gain. Vanitha (128 runs) and Deepti (124 runs) were the only other two batters to cross the 100-run mark; a worrying factor in the overall context.

Raut’s departure left Red needing 20 off the last 14 balls, but none of the batters took responsibility to finish the game. Another pressing issue in the big picture. Except for Deepti and Raut all other Red batters were restricted to single-digit scores.

Whether Raut earns a recall into the Indian T20 team on the back of this performance remains to be seen, but with the middle-order continuing to be brittle, she and Vanitha could be off field choices to pad up the batting unit beyond the usual suspects.

One of the major issues in women’s cricket in India has been the inability of teams to come from behind and script wins. Blue changed the script by winning three matches on the trot after losing their first two games. That they prevailed in the final without Mithali’s services was a big bonus.

“We changed the bowling tactics after the first two games,” Ramesh Powar, the newly appointed national coach and in-charge of Blue in this competition, told Cricketnext. “I allowed them to express themselves in the first two games, but then they realised that you just cannot go by your strength. You have to be very sharp when going into competition mode. If you want to win, you have to be very smart, learn how to read match situations and batters.”

This Challenger Trophy, which was not on television unlike the previous edition (50-over format) in Indore last season, surely exposed the second and third rung of cricketers to the highest possible level in the domestic circuit. In the absence Devika Vaidya (ill) and Pooja Vastrakar (injured), fresh faces like Hemalata, Reemalaxmi Ekka and Kanwer among others made use of their chances, but what does it mean in the larger context?

BCCI needs to nurture them in a planned manner so that they start to make an impact at the earliest rather than slipping into oblivion.

(Sidhanta Patnaik has reported on six ICC men's and women's tournaments. He is the co-author of The Fire Burns Blue - A history of women's cricket in India. @sidhpat)

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