The mark of a good story is its opening.
Which makes the story of the Indian women’s cricket team in recent times slightly confusing.
In eight One-Day Internationals in 2016, three in Australia and the rest at home, India Women have had five different opening pairs.
Smriti Mandhana, the 20-year-old left-hander, has featured in all but two of those combinations, and has done spectacularly well. With 315 runs from seven innings as opener this year, she averages 45 at a healthy strike rate of 85.13. This includes her maiden hundred, in Australia, two fifties and a pair of forties: The most recent of those was a match-defining 62-ball 44 in the five-wicket win against West Indies Women in the second ODI on Sunday (November 13).
However, there’s a carousel in the other opener’s spot. MD Thirushkamini (5 innings), Punam Raut (2), Veda Krishnamurthy (1) and Deepti Sharma (1) have all been tried as openers, with none immediately making the spot her own. The big-hitting Krishnamurthy is more effective in the middle order anyway.
This isn’t an issue restricted to ODIs. The line-up was anything but settled at the World Twenty20 earlier this year as well, with three different combinations tried among Mithali Raj, VR Vanitha and Mandhana in India’s four games. They put up 62, 3, 0 and 1.
In the 50-over game, this instability has been papered over by the form of Mandhana and Mithali Raj, who averages a remarkable 72 coming in at No. 3 or No. 4 in the same period.
Mandhana’s strength lies in her precocious talent and her studied determination to play freely, her mind unencumbered by analysis. She doesn’t require too much time to settle in. On Sunday, in the first over itself, she had a six and two fours off Tremayne Smartt.
Her explanation of it revealed just how straightforward her approach is. “We were chasing 154. My game plan was whenever I get a loose ball, I should hit it and play according to the merit of the ball. I got two free hits. If you don’t take a free hit, then …” she trailed off.
“This is how I bat,” she said not a few times. “I don’t think too much.”
Her coaches advise her not to complicate things with new shots, she explains. “[My captain and coach] don’t tell me a lot about how I should be planning (my innings) … they [let] me to play my natural game. If I don’t play my shots, I will be putting myself under pressure and later on play some other shots, which is not my thing.”
She knows what she has to do as an opener – “get the team through first ten overs and then carry the chase forward” – but is allowing neither the top-order instability nor her own occasional slip-ups affect her.
“I don’t think I should be taking a lot of responsibility. It will put a lot of pressure on me,” she says, adding, “I was in good touch before the series. I had a good Challenger Trophy and a good domestic season. Just by one match (the first ODI, where she fell for 7) I shouldn’t be putting pressure on myself and think ‘oh I can’t bat’. If I am not batting well in the nets, then I would think there is something wrong. But if I am batting well in nets and last match also I got good shots, I don’t think I should [worry].”
It could be argued that none of the claimants to be her opening partner have been given a steady enough run and the backing to develop this kind of touch or confidence.
Thirushkamini’s disappointing season – she averages 12.20 this year with a highest of 26, and her difficulties while fielding haven’t done her confidence any favours – appears to have most unsettled the team. A left-hander of undeniable talent, another chance to make her mark was lost when she became only the seventh player in the history of the one-day game to be given out for obstructing the ball while running back after an abandoned single.
Raj seemed reconciled to the opening difficulties and put on a brave face. “It (top order) has always been that way. We can only be optimistic that the girls will at some point give us the right opening stand, or that the top order at some point will give us the kind of innings that we look up to when we play at this level.”
“It (top order) has always been that way. We can only be optimistic that the girls will at some point give us the right opening stand, or that the top order at some point will give us the kind of innings that we look up to when we play at this level.” – Mithali Raj
For now, India seem to be keeping their faith in another left-hand batter, Deepti. The 19-year-old allrounder has batted at No.1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 8 in her short international career of 13 games, and has 164 limited-overs runs to show for it.
“When she came into the Challengers, I’ve seen her playing against my side and I found her quite compact,” said Raj on her decision to ask Deepti to open in the first ODI. “Now she seems to be a more confident player that what she was in the New Zealand series (in 2015). And I think this was the time when I could give her more confidence to mould her into one of those players who will play a key role for us in the World Cup.”
Mandhana too had praise for Deepti, with whom she added a vital 66 for the second wicket on Sunday. “She batted really well and she eased the pressure off me. All her shots were classical so I enjoyed seeing her bat.”
Deepti has said she enjoys batting in the top order. But the combination is far from certain and nothing indicates India’s top-order experiments won’t continue. In a World Cup year, India will hope that this story at least has a tidy ending.