Smriti Mandhana’s decision to bat first at the Holkar Stadium in Indore on Monday (January 8) on a used pitch proved decisive in India Blue’s 33-run win over India Green in a low-scoring Challenger Trophy final.
Chasing 208, Green were comfortably placed after Punam Raut and Jemimah Rodrigues put on an opening-wicket stand of 114, but collapsed after that. C Prathyusha, the legspinner, took 4 for 23 as Green lost all their ten wickets in the space of 60 runs to be dismissed in 45.2 overs.
Mandhana said she had run out of ideas when Raut and Rodrigues were batting, but kept asking her bowlers to bowl as many dot balls as possible.
“The plan against Jemimah and Punam was to block their singles, as they are good at dropping and running, and rotating the strike. When the ball was in their zone, they also hit the shots. Like in our previous game against them, the duo batted well again today. At one point of time, we really did not expect to win the match,” Mandhana told Wisden India. “I tried all my bowlers and all my field settings I know of. I was telling my bowlers to just create dot-ball pressure. I knew then they would go for their shots and that would lead to wickets.”
Rodrigues was caught off the bowling of Rajeshwari Gayakwad, the left-arm spinner, in the 26th over, and Raut was run out to be the third wicket to fall as Green slipped to 150 for 3. The momentum shifted in Blue’s favour after that.
“Once two-three wickets fell, we were back in the match and the ball was staying low on the pitch,” added Mandhana. “It was not easy for the new batter to come and settle in.”
Raut, who made 88 and ended as the tournament’s highest run-getter with a tally of 273 runs in three games, which included a century, was disappointed to not have finished the game, but felt that the middle-order batters could have been more responsible.
“Jemi and I just planned to play the ball as per its merit and not look at the target. We focused on running between the wickets, and playing the shots whenever there was an opportunity,” said Raut. “Their bowling was not exceptional and the pitch was fine. I think our middle order should have taken more responsibility and finished the game.”
Raut made an unbeaten 84 in the first game against India Red, and followed it up with scores of 101 and 88 in two consecutive games against Blue. She had also been in good form for Railways in the inter-state 50-over competition in December, which was her first assignment since being India’s second-highest run-getter at the World Cup in England.
“I have worked a lot during the off season, and been in touch by having a lot of match practice,” she said. “It has helped me in starting the domestic season well. Now when we go to South Africa in February, the expectations will be higher from the team after we made it to the final in the World Cup. That is going to be a challenge for us.”
Mandhana’s captaincy was one of the talking points from the Challenger Trophy. She almost hand-held the bowlers, setting the field for them and it resulted in her team winning the title.
“Except for Jhulan (Goswami) di (and Gayakwad) most of the bowlers were playing the Challenger for the first time. So, the idea was to keep it simple and give the bowlers the field they wanted,” said Mandhana, sharing her captaincy philosophy. “Depending on the line the bowler wants to bowl, I try to set fields. We had spoken before this match of what kind of field we would try.”
Mandhana started the tournament with an unbeaten century against Red and finished with 58 in the final. She will now lead Maharashtra in the inter-state Twenty20 competition, which starts from January 12, before being a part of a national camp in Mumbai from January 17 to 23. The team will then fly to South Africa to play three One-Day Internationals and five Twenty20 Internationals.
“I am really looking forward (to the South Africa tour). Batting is looking in good touch, and hope it remains the same,” she said. “After the World Cup, I have made some technical changes, and have played a lot against wet tennis balls and plastic balls to counter the bounce in South Africa. We won’t get time now as we have the T20 competition and then the camp. How much time was there (in the off season), I ensured that I prepared both for South African and Indian pitches because we also have the domestic season.”