CHENNAI: Picking a World Cup squad is always tricky. On Thursday when the Board of Control for Cricket in India announced their Mithali Raj-led squad — a mix of experience and youth — for the New Zealand tour and the 2022 ODI World Cup through a press release, there were a few names that seemed baffling.
Let's talk about the team first. Smriti Mandhana and Shafali Verma will open the batting. Yastika Bhatia, Raj, and Harmanpreet Kaur will fill the middle-order followed by Richa Ghosh, Pooja Vastrakar and either of Sneh Rana and Deepti Sharma playing the spin bowling all-rounder role. Meghna Singh, Jhulan Goswami and Rajeshwari Gayakwad likely to make up the bowling, with PoonamYadav, Renuka Singh Thakur and Taniya Bhatia (wicketkeeper) as backups. S Meghana, Ekta Bisht and Simran Dil Bahadur are in standby reserves per ICC protocols.
Apart from the likely eleven, India have an uncapped pacer, a specialist spinner, wicket-keeper and a spinner who can bat to pick from. If the openers or a specialist batter gets injured or goes out of form, they will have to shuffle the combinations or make do with Taniya/Rana at the top. In many ways, this conundrum seems similar to that the Indian men had before the 2019 World Cup.
The bigger question, though, was the omission of Jemimah Rodrigues and Shikha Pandey. The duo did not find a place, not just in the 15-member squad, but also in the reserves. After being left out of the home series against South Africa in March 2021, Pandey played three ODIs in England, taking two wickets while operating at an economy of 4.81. Meghna Singh took her place in the XI in Australia, but Pandey did well in the T20Is and followed it up with decent performances in the domestic tournaments.
In her absence, the Indian pace attack has a collective experience of 13 matches and 5 wickets in ODIs between Vastrakar and Meghna Singh along with an uncapped Renuka to accompany Goswami. Rodrigues, on the other hand, was dropped after a poor run in five ODIs, but came back strongly in The Hundred, Women’s Big Bash League and the T20Is against Australia.
Calling it a surprise, Tushar Arothe — the former head coach who was with the team during the 2017 ODI World Cup — said that fast bowling is a bit of a concern. “Out of four fast bowlers only Jhulan is experienced. Vastrakar, Meghna and Renuka are fairly new. Vastrakar has done well, but she can be a little bit on the expensive side. Which is why, I thought Shikha could have been ideal.”
Echoing similar thoughts, former fielding coach Biju George felt that the absence of Pandey will put pressure on Goswami. “Shikha never goes for too many runs. You have to look at how good Jhulan is when Shikha is bowling at the other end. Her experience will be missed,” he said, adding that Goswami will have to guide the pace attack. As for Rodrigues, George said that the Mumbai player is someone who saves at least 15-20 with her fielding alone. “She was one of the stars with the bat in the WBBL. If not in the 15, she should have been there as a backup.”
There are a few positives in the squad such as the selection of Yastika, who had a stellar 2021 both internationally and domestically, and the return of a fully fit Kaur. With the vice-captain back in the team after a player of the series performance in WBBL, skipper Mithali should be able to express herself freely as she has Rana, Ghosh and Vastrakar to follow in the lower middle-order. However, a lot will ride on the form of Mandhana and Verma, the duo who have blown hot and cold in 2021, at the top of the order. In the bowling department, Renuka Singh Thakur has earned her maiden ODI call-up, but her inexperience could be tested on the biggest stage against top teams.
When asked what the team should do to replicate their performance from 2017, Arothe said, “If they can put decent toals, they can win matches. There will be pressure to reach the finals, but they should take one game at a time. Mithali and Jhulan are consistent, but they need support from Smriti, Shafali and Harman.” George added that clear communication and a relaxed dressing room is critical for the team’s success in the World Cup.
India finished the 2017 ODI World Cup and the 2020 T20 World Cup as runner-ups. We will have to wait and see if they've given themselves a best chance to go one step further this time.
For ODIs vs NZ and World Cup: Mithali (C), Harmanpreet (VC), Smriti, Shafali, Yastika, Deepti, Richa (WK), Sneh, Jhulan, Pooja, Meghna, Renuka, Taniya (WK), Rajeshwari, Poonam.
Standby reserves: S Meghana, E Bisht, S Dil Bahadur
For only T20I: Harmanpreet (C), Smriti (VC), Shafali, Yastika, Deepti, Richa (WK), Sneh, Pooja, Meghna, Renuka, Taniya (WK), Rajeshwari, Poonam, Ekta, Meghana, Simran.