Ravi Nair reports
At the end, they were playing for pride. Deepti Sharma and Shikha Pandey have put in all they could for India, not just in the three ODIs that preceded this, but also while bowling and fielding during the first innings of this first T20I. But they had been dealt, face up, a losing hand, and been left to do with it what they would. And they responded with pride, and commitment, and no hope regarding the result: they were beaten even before they came together on the pitch, at the end of the 15th over, with 85 runs to win. That they came within 41 runs of England’s total must be cause for some, grim, satisfaction.
On winning the toss Mandhana had decided to chase. Given she is India’s premier batter and has an astonishing record in chases, this seemed sensible. Also, this was a pitch, at Guwahati’s Barsapara Stadium, that was new to them. Watching how the opposition fared on it would give the Indian batters a good idea of what to expect and how to plan their chase. So it seemed, all round, to be an impeccable decision. And it was the wrong one.
The England Women’s team does not quite have the power-hitting ability of their male counterparts, who mishit for 6 and keep hitting, but in players like Wyatt, Beaumont, Sciver, Brunt and co they have caught up to a large extent with the Healeys, Devines, Dottins and Kaurs of the world and they do, particularly in the T20 format, have strength in depth that, perhaps, only Australia amongst the other teams, can match.
Given a slow and consistent pitch, therefore, the England batters can take just about any bowling attack to the cleaners and that is what they proceeded to do. Beaumont and Wyatt, opening, were careful just to watch the ball for the first two overs, taking any runs on offer (6 of their first eight runs were from extras) and then, having got the pace of the pitch (and it was a consistent, reliable, slow pace) they began to hit out.
Shikha Pandey, for India, was as good as she had been during the ODIs. So was India’s other star bowler, Poonam Yadav. The problem was that Mandhana, with the responsibility of captaincy at 22 years old, had to keep Yadav on and bring back Pandey, before the 15th over of the England innings, just to try to stem the flow of runs. The tactic worked, to an extent, with Wyatt caught in the deep by Mandhana herself off Pandey.
But it meant that the last five overs of the innings had to be bowled by the hard-working, but not as dangerous, trio, of Reddy, Yadav (Radha), and Deepti Sharma. While Sciver too was out early that still left Beaumont, still merrily striking away, with her captain, Knight, for company.
Now there are, on the English team, and in most teams, batters so distinctive that if someone were to play you a stick-figure animation of them batting you would be able to tell who it is.
“Of course, that pull – it’s Mandhana!”
“How orthodox is that? Raj for sure. And that lofted drive must be Wyatt. That Dilscoop is surely Beaumont. Did you see the weight of power in that drive? Has to be Sciver!”
And so on.
But there is something almost anonymous about England’s captain, Heather Knight’s, batting style. If she pulls you might think it was Beaumont pulling. If she cuts it might be Wyatt. If she drives it could be Sciver.
If you were asked about her you might say: “Ummmmm… she’s… good.” But that might be all you had.
Which is what made the 18th and 19th overs of the England innings such a revelation. Reddy started the 18th bowling at Beaumont who, having played herself into fluency, and then out again, managed a single. Knight then hit a four. And another. And another. And… she only stopped when she ran out of balls to face, having hit the hapless bowler for five consecutive fours, each with a different shot: a pull, a sweep, a cut, a lofted drive… Knight pulled them all out of her menu. It was a la carte boundary smiting and utterly brilliant. In the next over she hit a sixth consecutive four, and then a single, going from 15 runs in 11 deliveries, to 40 in 19. The next ball she faced she, well, holed out. And that was fine, because she had taken England from a good score to an almost unbeatable one.
When Beaumont was stumped for a superb 62, it was left to Brunt and Winfield to get what runs they could in the last few deliveries, taking England to 160 for 4 after their allotted overs.
In the limited overs games, and particularly in ODIs, some commentators claim that ending an innings with just four wickets having been lost is a bad thing: it shows that you haven’t used all the batting resources available to you, and you would have been better off hitting out more frantically, even though you lose eight wickets.
On a slow pitch like this, however, and in a T20 match, England’s innings was about as good as an innings can get from a professional, percentage play, point of view (it was also very exciting, but that’s a different matter): had they simply hit out and lost wickets, each new batter, to be effective, would have had to spend, or waste, some deliveries just getting the measure of the pitch. The set batters, on the other hand, having had the opportunity to calibrate their strokeplay to the speed of the surface, could always take better advantage of each ball bowled at them. A wicket meant not just a wasted scoring opportunity, but three or four more wasted deliveries as the new batter got her eye in.
To that extent, therefore, losing wickets to hasty shots would be a big mistake. This, unfortunately, is what happened to India when they started to chase.
England, having seen Sarah Taylor return home, as scheduled, then played without Amy Jones either, leaving the glovework behind the stumps to Tammy Beaumont. It was a risky tactic, particularly given Beaumont had just batted for 19 of the 20 overs, but in this shortest of formats it was a chance that England could just about take. Beaumont did, nevertheless, look a bit rusty in the first two overs, but she made no mistake in the third.
Instead of Mandhana’s ODI partner, Jemimah Rodrigues, Harleen Deol opened with her captain and Knight, either confused, or showing immense tactical nous (I prefer the latter idea), had each of the first three overs bowled by a different bowler: first Sciver, then Shrubsole and then Brunt. The pitch was placid, yes, but having three different bowlers meant it was that much more difficult for the batters to feel as though they knew what pace it was playing at. Deol played slightly late and edged the merest flicker of a touch into Beaumont’s gloves. Immediately, India were under pressure: the weight of runs required meaning that they could not, thereafter, afford for their batters to take two overs each bedding in. Worse was to come as Mandhana fell for the old trap of being tempted to loft the ball to the onside, and finding Kate Cross at long-on, precisely placed for this shot.
This was to the young Linsey Smith, another one of England’s seemingly endless bench of left arm slow finger spinners. To add to it, Rodrigues, on the first ball she faced was strangled down the leg side with Beaumont taking the catch. If, that is, you can be said to be strangled down the leg side to a spinner.
Even though Raj, and Veda Krishnamurthy (returning to the XI) were at the crease, it was clear that the match was over as a contest. With each over India fell further behind the required rate. The batters had to try to push the score along, with the result that they played non-percentage shots and, as could have been predicted, got out.
Raj and Krishnamurthy were back in the dressing room before the score reached 50. And as though to hammer it home, as India got to 76, Brunt got her second wicket: Reddy, caught by Dunkley.
From then on Pandey and Sharma, two of India’s most hard working and valuable players, could only try to not get out, and to score enough runs to make the scoreline not look like a thrashing. But the contest was over before they even came to the crease.
Knight must be thinking that this is what she expected from her team when the squad first arrived in India. Mandhana, reflecting on her decision at the toss, must be thinking that life’s a pitch.