Ravi Nair reports
Smriti Mandhana (whom I dearly hope is called Mandy in the dressing room) has, probably since she made her debut, and definitely in the last two years, been thought of as FIC (Future India Captain) just as much as Mike Atherton was FEC to his team mates long before he captained England. She is only 22 and India are surely, barring ill-health or accident, going to see her rule the world as its premier batter for another 10 years at least, so it makes perfect sense for her to be considered the ideal next captain or co-captain for India. Fans, of her, and the game, however, might have wished the opportunity had not arrived quite so quickly. It is not easy to develop much confidence, in your ability, in the squad’s ability, or the squad’s in you, if you are two down with one to play in a home series. Yet that is the situation Mandhana is in after India lost the T20i series in Guwahati to an England performance that, while not as assured as during the first match, was still comfortable enough at the end.
It had all started well for India, though. Knight may have won the toss and decided to chase, which would also have been India’s preferred option, but it wasn’t a big issue: Mandhana correctly assessing that this fresh pitch would play much the way the first did, slow and consistent throughout the day. And Knight played her three-card bowling trick again, with Sciver, Shrubsole and Brunt taking overs 1, 2 and 3 respectively. Except this time Sciver’s first over didn’t go as planned, particularly as Deol cover drove her off the first delivery to the boundary and then she gave away five wides in the same over. Shrubsole’s first over was, if anything, even worse. Mandhana lofted her sublimely on her very first delivery over the long off boundary for six. And then repeated the dose later in the over. At 21 – 0 after 2 overs, it looked as though it could be an epic score for India.
Brunt, as she does so often for England, restored sanity in the third. Mandhana, trying the lofted drive yet again, misjudged the bowler and the line, to outside edge to the keeper. Amy Jones has the unenviable position of playing Stuart MacGill to Sarah Taylor’s Shane Warne when it comes to keeping for England. Jones is one of the best keepers in the world in her own right and it must have been frustrating to her, and to England, for her to have to be kept out of the first T20 through injury. Beaumont was whole-hearted in taking up the gloves for that match, but even she must have been relieved, as must everyone else in the England camp, to see Jones back behind the stumps. For Jones, even standing back as England’s keepers tend to do for each pace bowler’s first over, it was a regulation catch, and after that it was simply a question of how much the visitors could keep down the host’s score.
Wickets began to come more regularly, both Brunt and Linsey Smith bowling well enough to keep India in that twilight zone between trying to hold on to their wickets and still trying to push the score along. They weren’t helped by Mithali Raj’s disinclination to run quick singles. She nearly had Sharma run out early, and later achieved it just when her partner looked as though she had the measure of the bowling. In the absence of Harmanpreet Kaur, Raj is probably essential to add batting gravitas to this Indian T20 side, but she does sometimes make it hard to sympathise with her selection. Her 20 runs, though the highest score of the Indian innings, was not as valuable as that sounds, since they didn’t come quickly and she got out as soon as she attempted to push the scoring rate along.
Even on a pitch like this, unless you are a Smriti Mandhana, it will take an over or two to get its measure, and wickets falling will always stall an innings. India found their run rate dropping with almost every over, and certainly with every wicket. Once Sharma was gone, it was a steady procession with no improvement in the run rate. Special mention must be made, however, of Bharti Fulmali, making her debut: she kept her head and showed some good strokeplay to help India during the last third of their innings, and almost certainly helped achieve what respectability their score did.
England, after halfway, came out having to chase down India’s 111-8, on an easy pitch, and with the confidence of having set 160 on a near identical surface just a few days earlier. Wyatt set off like a drag racer, in the style England expect of her in T20i matches and it looked as though, at over a run a ball, requiring less than five an over, the match would soon be done. Beaumont, however, having spent a little while letting Wyatt make the running, decided it was time for her too. Unfortunately she may have forgotten that a slow pitch is not the same as a pitch that doesn’t take turn at all. Simply put, Beaumont jumped out to hit Radha Yadav (the left arm finger-spinner) missed the ball and lost her stumps.
After this, with Pandey being slightly less effective than has been her wont this tour, it was Bisht and the two Yadavs who put pressure on the England batting, chipping away at the wickets: Jones caught and bowled, Sciver LBW and Knight LBW; keeping the scoring rate down and giving their captain hope of a good fight. Albeit Wyatt at the other end had still not (and did not throughout her impressive unbeaten innings) dipped below a strike rate of more than a run a ball.
Winfield, in next, helped provide what England needed – a partnership with Wyatt that put the match to rest. In fact Winfield batted so well, getting her eye in quickly and scoring fours at every opportunity, that she easily outscored Wyatt during their 47 run stand. This might also be partly down to Wyatt, inspired by the maturity she had shown in the third ODI, throttling back to ensure she kept her wicket to see England home. When Winfield, ambitious and mistiming the ball a touch, holed out, England needed just 9 runs with 14 deliveries left.
Brunt just had to keep her wicket, survive a very close LBW shout, and score two runs. Wyatt did the rest as England won by 5 wickets with 5 balls in hand. It wasn’t an actual stroll in the park but it wasn’t as close as the scoreline might suggest.
Wyatt won Player of the Match, which was only fair, given she had scored 64* when nobody else on either side even reached 30 (and in fact only Winfield and Raj had even reached 20). It was also nice to see, after her “mature” face throughout her innings, to see the intensity relax into the smile we are accustomed to see from Danni Wyatt as she went up to collect her award.
As it stands, England sit dormy in this tour, being one match up in total, with one to play. They will want to win the last game, on Saturday, to prove that they are the side they believe they are. Mandhana will want her first win as a captain too. Given, however, that it is once more a “dead rubber”, the series having been decided, there may yet again be a slight lack of intensity in it. This would be a bit of a pity since, as the only the weekend match of this tour, it may well get the highest attendance of any match so far (where Barsapara stadium has already shown its ability to attract about five times as many spectators as Wankhede did).
As for India, despite the issues surrounding Raj’s place in the team, and her problems with the team management (now all allegedly smoothed over), since she was in the playing XI, it might just have been worthwhile making her the makeshift captain for this series and allowing Mandhana to bat with greater freedom, particularly in the first match, which might have made the difference between winning and losing this series. But now, battle-hardened as it were, she might as well captain for the third too: she is likelier to feel more confidence in her bowlers after this performance, and maybe even get the right blend of freedom to hit combined with responsibility, to make a substantial score of her own. It’s time for “Mandy” to do a little taking for herself.