With mindset changing about women’s game and an increased focus on power hitting as well as fitness, India head to the showpiece event as one of the favourites. Srinidhi PR finds out how Harmanpreet Kaur & Co went from also rans to contenders in the sport’s shortest format
Indian tears were still to dry. Anya Shrubsole’s six-wicket haul had crushed the dreams of the Women In Blue. The 2017 50-over World Cup had come and gone. That elusive title had slipped through their fingers. But people woke up to women’s cricket, especially Indians, after the epic final at Lord’s. To say that the 2017 World Cup was a watershed moment in Indian women’s cricket would be an understatement. Fast forward to a year later in the Caribbean. The team looked set for their maiden final in the sport’s shortest format, but ended up pressing the panic button once again and collapsed in the semifinal to hand England a win.
Of the two, the semifinal exit in 2018 is, in relative terms, of bigger significance than the final in 2017. Traditionally, India have performed well in 50-over games. But that was not the case with T20Is.
Not long ago, them beating one of the traditional heavyweights in the shortest format would have been considered an upset. It is in this context that the 2018 performance ignited hopes in a format where they were seen as underdogs.
From being seen as also rans to contenders, India had come a long way in the shortest format. Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami were no more the only faces of women’s cricket in India as Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana took the game to the next level. Now, many people know at least half of the 15-member squad that has been selected for the seventh edition of women’s T20 World Cup, starting on Friday in Australia. Some would even call them as favourites. But in tangible terms, if they channelise their unpredictability, reaching the final will be considered as success.
Until recently, the word ‘power-hitting’ was not in the Indian team’s dictionary. This change in approach was brought in by the likes of skipper Kaur and Mandhana after they were exposed to the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia and Kia Super League in England. India’s game gradually became fast as they regularly started scoring at more than run a ball. Apart from the duo, India now boast of Shafali Verma and Jemimah Rodrigues at the top to up the ante. Add all-rounder Deepti Sharma and Veda Krishnamurthy to the mix and they are not short of talent to provide the necessary fireworks.
Former India all-rounder Reema Malhotra feels that playing aggressively is a significant factor in their evolution. “If you want to compete with Australia and England, you need to play big shots. It all began with Harman. Back then, we didn’t have power-hitters. Now, we have that breed of players. That’s a big positive,” said Malhotra, who represented India in 22 T20Is.But the transformation didn’t happen overnight. That people were ready to talk about and watch more women helped them raise their game. In the first 13 years of T20Is, only three centuries were hit. But since July 2017, 13 hundreds have been struck by the top 10 teams.
New playing conditions that stipulated four fielders outside the circle in T20Is also contributed to these numbers but more significant was the shift in mindset and technique. India realised the need for change. The first building blocks in this era came in giving contracts to the players and support staff. Next, the focus was on improving their fitness and bench strength. While the latter is still a work-in-progress, the former contributed to Kaur & Co bridging the gap with the other powerhouses.
To gain that extra second in fielding, to clear the fence with power, to run between the wickets and to keep pace with the evolution, they needed to work on their fitness. And they did, by bringing on board a trainer in Afzal Khan and a nutritionist post-July 2017. “After the 2017 World Cup, people realised that women’s cricket too has a future,” said the women’s selection committee chairman Hemlata Kala. “Earlier, the game used to be slow. People didn’t feel like watching it. Now, that’s not the case. With regards to India, fitness and fielding have come up by leaps and bounds. After 2017, we started having fitness-specific camps at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. Before leaving for Australia also, they had a similar camp.”
It wasn’t that players were not fitter before 2017. But that the amount of time and money invested in fitness has increased over time. “We have had (fitness) camps since 2005 but the approach has changed,” said Malhotra. “Earlier the focus was more on skills. We used to do a combined training session. Now, power training has been introduced. All 15 members will undergo training according to the demands of their bodies, which makes a lot of difference. Players understand their bodies. inancially also, they are much better because of the contract system. This allows them to hire personal trainers.”
The current bunch in Australia goes into the tournament with less baggage. There is an oasis of optimism in this youthful squad under new coach WV Raman, who is known to build discipline and unearth talent.That they are willing to give youngsters a longer rope was evident in the way they have picked the contingent — the average age of the team is 22.8. This is a departure from
the past.Shedding light on the reasons behind picking more youngsters, Kala said: “After the World Cup in 2016, we realised that we lack power-hitters.
We thought we will give chance to youngsters at the U-19 level because their style of play and mindset is different. We didn’t want to wait. People will say let them play for a year or six months (in domestic). They will say she is just 15-16 years old, she won’t be ready. “But we believe if a girl is picked in the squad when she is in form, it will help her grow as a player. “Selection shouldn’t be based on age but skill. Even if she fails initially (at the international level), she will have age on her side to rectify
her mistakes.”Shafali, Jemimah, Deepti Sharma, and Radha Yadav — who all made their debut before turning 18 — are examples of teenagers having a big impact. That the team management is ready to invest and nurture young talents irrespective of the result is something to be appreciated.
It is in this backdrop that India head into the tournament as one of the contenders. The skipper knows that the key to success will be staying calm under pressure. “We were quite close in the last two World Cups, the only thing is we have to keep in mind how to handle pressure in the tournaments, the last two World Cups we lacked in handling pressure,” the 31-year-old had said before leaving for Australia. “This time we want to enjoy rather than put more pressure on ourselves. We have to avoid thinking like that and focus on giving our best.”The 2018 edition perhaps showed the world that India were no more underachievers in T20Is. With momentum surging, it’s a golden opportunity for the Women in Blue to gain a foothold and convert the cynics. However, it will depend on how they handle the pressure.