SA WOMEN TOUR OF INDIA, 2024

Key takeaways: Consistent openers, Vastrakar's second wind and fielding challenges

"The best thing for both of us is that we've started knowing each other's game a lot more," Mandhana said of Shafali
"The best thing for both of us is that we've started knowing each other's game a lot more," Mandhana said of Shafali ©BCCI

On the back of an inspired bowling performance, India bounced back in the third T20I to level the series against South Africa with a comprehensive 10-wicket win on Tuesday at Chepauk. With less than 10 days to go for India's last scheduled T20I assignment - the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka - ahead of October's World Cup in Bangladesh, here are the key takeaways from the tightly-fought two-and-a-half games in Chennai.

Openers' form and intent

Marizanne Kapp's much-anticipated bowling return on this tour of India was nothing short of extraordinary. After getting the first two deliveries to leave the left-handed Smriti Mandhana, Kapp got one to come in from good length and seam away sharply, beating her all ends up as she tried to have a poke at it. How it missed the opener's bat and the off-stump left everyone shell-shocked, including the in-form batter herself. In a multi-format series where Mandhana had scored 786 runs before that peach from Kapp, and 45 more after it, this was the only time the India vice-captain looked in any sort of trouble across formats.

Before the start of the series, Mandhana had no international hundreds on home soil. In the space of the last three weeks she came close to making it a hat-trick of centuries in Bengaluru and then fell one short of a 150 in the only innings of the one-off Test. She was second, only behind Tazmin Brits with one less innings, on the run-makers charts in the T20s, her 100 runs coming at a strike-rate close to 143 amid the consistently positive starts she provided. That's the kind of consistency she's constantly craved for, and so did India.

"For me as well, a lot of work was put in the batters' camp which we had coming into the series," the 27-year-old said. "[We had a ] dedicated batters' camp for like 10 to 12 days, n number of hours [went into] batting which really helps. Sometimes when you are in season back to back, it's hard to just go out and just bat. So something like that camp for 10-12 days really puts you in a better place. Mentally I think we all were ready. Not only me, all the batters throughout the series were ready to play red-ball cricket, one-day cricket, T20...I always believe in prepping well and working really hard when no one's watching, so I think that's really helped me and the whole team to come out here and play with a lot of confidence."

Shafali Verma, on the other hand, roared back to form with a record fastest double ton in Women's Test. Yes, the longest format allowed Verma the luxury of pacing her innings well, but for the top-of-the-order hitter like her, runs in any format are a confidence booster. Since her arrival, Verma has been the aggressor in the opening partnership with Mandhana and her maturity in turning the strike over to her on-song senior partner in a modest chase in Game 3 was ample proof of the understanding of each other's game.

Ahead of the World Cup, a lot of things have clicked for India in this T20I series
Ahead of the World Cup, a lot of things have clicked for India in this T20I series ©BCCI

"The best thing for both of us is that we've started knowing each other's game a lot more in the last one and a half, two years," Mandhana said of her opening partner. "Of course, when she came in, things were a lot different. She used to go bang, bang. But now she's understands which bowlers to target. Spinners are her strength, pacers are my strength, which works really well [for us]. We know that on a particular day, who's timing the ball better and in PowerPlay, who should take more strike."

No. 3 unanswered? Maybe not...

India's best kept secret this T20I series was who's their no. 3, once D Hemalatha was dropped. Rain washed away the chase in the second match that saw the side field four changes from the first game, and then in the series-levelling win the openers polished off the 85-run target between themselves.

Ideally, the no. 3 shouldn't have been a debate at all going into the series. Earning a national recall after a successful WPL 2024 for her batting intent more than the run-tally, Hemalatha had more or less sealed that spot in Bangladesh with her 109 runs coming at an impressive strike-rate of 141.56. However, she faced the axe after India's 12-run loss in the high-scoring first T20I to South Africa with captain Harmanpreet Kaur pinning the blame partially on the high dot-ball consumption in the middle-overs phase. Hemalatha consuming 9 dots in her 17-ball stay for 14 in Game 1 is too small a sample size to judge, and it's also possible that it was the ankle twist she suffered earlier in that game that made the hosts rest, not drop, her.

While Uma Chetry and S Sajana were two potential candidates for India to explore all possible options, it is also to be noted that those were calculated changes to the XI once the regular wicketkeeper Richa Ghosh concussed herself. To compensate, Chetry, a top-order batter, was brought in for the glovework, with Sajana to fill in as the finisher. With Yastika Bhatia still in recovery, Hemalatha should be reinstated India's one-drop in the upcoming Asia Cup once Ghosh is fit to resume. Bhatia does offer the temptation of a second left-hander in the top-seven, but that's not even an option on the table for at least the very next assignment. Or maybe even long-term, as Mandhana indicated at the end of the series.

"I don't think it's an experiment; it was a calculated thing which we have definitely thought [about]," Mandhana said of the changes surrounding India's no. 3. "It's a big call from 4-5 of us [leadership group]...I wouldn't want to tell the reason now... but it's a lot to do with what we feel can win us a lot of matches rather than one or two matches. That's what all it is. I wouldn't say that there'll be a lot of shuffling. This series of course we had to do that a lot more last moment because Richa got injured. That change was definitely a forced one; the first T20I [line-up] was a well though [out] one."

Vastrakar's bowling impressed in all three phases of the game
Vastrakar's bowling impressed in all three phases of the game ©BCCI

Vastrakar, the new new-ball bowler

No Renuka Thakur, no problem, said Pooja Vastrakar. Thakur's troubles were apparent across the three formats and when India dropped her - she played only three of the seven games of the series - and Vastrakar stepped up to shoulder the new-ball responsibility with aplomb. It wasn't exactly her first rodeo though, but the switch back from middle-overs bowler to the one starting the proceedings has reaped rich rewards, with consistent backing from the management.

Vastrakar bowled through all three phases of the game, and struck in each of them across the three T20Is to stamp her efficiency and accuracy with the new ball and old. She dismissed each one of the South Africa's top-six, scalping 8 wickets in three innings at an impressive economy of just 6.53. Her tight, attacking lines made her difficult to put away in the Powerplay, something that the opposition captain herself conceded, and the pacer bought India regular wickets at death too. Even on slower surfaces, in the preceding T20I series in Bangladesh where the World Cup is due later, Vastrakar was bold enough to throw in an occasional mean bouncer. With improved fitness as well, Vastrakar has quickly established herself as India's all-conditions bowler in a second wind of sorts over the last international season. Expect Vastrakar's to be the first name on the team sheet among bowlers even in the most spin-friendly conditions India are likely expecting for the two big events ahead.

Patil, once included, proved to be an attacking and versatile spinner.
Patil, once included, proved to be an attacking and versatile spinner. ©BCCI

A spin combo that works

There's a combo that looked most ideal on paper, and one that clicked. India's spin attack in the series opener, part-timers excluded, had all bases covered for a right-hand heavy South Africa - comprising the left-arm spin of Radha Yadav, reliable off-spinner in Deepti Sharma and a leg-spinner in Asha Sobhana. However, together they leaked 124 runs for two wickets - both to Deepti - in 12 overs. Sobhana like most other bowlers on the night, struggled to get her line and lengths right, conceding 39 in her four overs.

After letting the visitors run away to 189, India tweaked their spin troika to include offspinning-allrounder Shreyanka Patil at the expense of the leggie. Patil returned 1/37 in South Africa's 177, bowling mostly with control in her first three overs for 19 runs, before being taken apart at death that nullified the crucial penultimate-over strike. However, in the third game, summoned again in the powerplay, the 21-year-old provided the first breakthrough with in-form Laura Wolvaardt's wicket that was crucial in pushing the opposition on the backfoot early. India have alternated between the two RCB breakout stars, but on limited evidence available, Patil has proved to be more attacking and versatile a spinner.

Fielding still a work in progress

Ever since Muzumdar has taken over as head coach, the team management has insisted and reiterated that fielding standards are a non negotiable but the promised improvement has only been seen in pockets. Jemimah Rodrigues echoed the importance of it ahead the T20Is and in 24 hours from there the Indian captain blamed the four dropped chances for letting South Africa stack up an above-par total of 189. Having played all of WPL and most of their recent international T20s under lights, the catching lapses were inexcusable. The slowness of Thakur and Sobhana, to name a few, make them a liability on the field, something India can't leave to chance in world events. There's was noticeable improvement as the series progressed, but fielding was one area that left a great deal to be desired.

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