“Twenty-eighty”: That’s what Mithali Raj thought her team’s chances of beating Australia Women in their own backyard were before the Twenty20 International series against the side that has won the last three Women’s World Twenty20 competitions.
India had only one warm-up match on landing in Australia, a 50-over affair against a Governor General’s XI in Sydney. Heavy rain meant that was washed out after four overs. They came into the T20I series cold, and then saw Alyssa Healy smack 41 not out off 15 balls to power Australia to a total of 140 in the first game at Adelaide Oval. At that point, if you had offered India a 20% chance of winning the series by the second match itself, you would have been asked to join the Optimists Club of Adelaide.
“I didn’t give a thought about the result of the series. But, I wanted the girls to perform well and put up a good standard of cricket. Because, we’re on television and this is a platform from where we can actually promote the Indian women’s team,” said Raj on Friday (January 29) after the Indians wrapped up the T20I series. “I wanted them to put their best on television. They have put way beyond that to win the series.”
So realistically, what did Raj think before it began, given the lack of preparation and the washout? “Well, with all the factors against us, and playing against the world champions, I gave a 20-80% of us winning,” she smiled. “Earlier also, there were close matches with Australia, but winning it … But then, when we played the first game, and when we saw after the first innings they gave us a target of 140, I felt there’s a chance to pull a win here, which happened. And that gave a lot of confidence to the girls.”
The standout feature of the two T20I wins was the incredible self-belief. Faced with a 140 chase, they found their champion in Harmanpreet Kaur, who smashed 46 off 31. When Australia were going great guns at 103 for 3 in the second T20I at Melbourne Cricket Ground, the bowlers sparked a collapse that reduced the home team to 113 for 8.
“I’ve always emphasised on believing in their ability to perform no matter what the situation is,” said Raj. “Because when we represent India at the highest level, we can’t even think of ourselves as average players, we are good that’s why we are playing for India.”
Jhulan Goswami, the veteran seamer, was the Player of the Match for her 2 for 16 in four overs at the MCG. She said that while the tour involved a lot of mental preparation, the infusion of young talent gave the side fresh energy. “There was a lot of preparation, mentally and as a team also. We knew it’s not going to be easy because we were playing Australia in their conditions and they play very hard cricket,” she said.
“To counter that, you have to play very positive cricket. No matter what is coming at you, just go there and enjoy your batting and play your shots. And if you are bowling, then you have to be consistent. So far in bowling and batting we have done a pretty good job. And in the last two matches, the fielding has also been impressive.
“I think the new kids are very interesting. They are very confident, they watch a lot of IPL and T20 and they just want to play fearless cricket. They just go out and enjoy their game, and we try to share with them whatever experience we have and guide them. It’s a good combination of youth and seniors. No matter what is the situation, we play music in the dressing room, we dance. We are enjoying each others’ success and that is the best thing.”
One of the other factors providing stability was off the field, with the women cricketers offered contracts for the first time recently. “We just signed our central contracts. And the girls are quite happy. I’m very happy that we actually proved that we are worth it and deserve them,” beamed Raj. “I’m sure it will be motivation for the other players and cricketers back in India, who want to play for the nation. There are some players who are financially not very secure, so it can be a motivational factor for those players who are very talented, but not supported financially.”
For the first time ever for an extended duration, the women’s team has had some interaction with the men’s team too. There was a meeting with Virat Kohli before the first T20I where he spoke about batting on Australian pitches, and an interaction with MS Dhoni after winning the second match. “I think this is the first time that we’ve actually crossed paths, where our series are simultaneously placed, where the games are double-headers and the practice sessions are similar too,” said Raj. “We’ve had interactions that have really helped. Before the first match, when I had an interaction with the fielding coach (R Sridhar).”
Goswami was watching keenly to help make plans too. “We watched the matches because we wanted to know how the pitch and ground are, how to cut the angles. This is our first time at the MCG so we wanted to know all that. And seeing the batters put up 300 each time, motivated us to do well also.”
With the series win against Australia in Australia, the profile of the Indian team has risen sharply. Topmost for all teams now, is the looming Women’s World Twenty20 2016, which will be played concurrently with the men’s event in India. Having proved their prowess away, Raj’s team will be considered doubly dangerous in home conditions.
“It opens up a lot of gates for us. Beating Australia at home is a very big achievement by the team. We are going to play the World T20 in India, and all the other teams will be wary of us,” said Raj. “With this win, I’m sure each girl has a lot of confidence that she can be a big match-winner for the team.
“It’s very nice to be around a team which believes in their captain, and I believe in them as well, to pull matches through.”