India look to freeze down ideal combination against cricket-starved Sri Lanka

INDIA WOMEN TOUR FROM SRI LANKA

"He (Laxman) motivated us a lot with anecdotes from his time about how the Indian [men's] team went through the phase where they had to work on and improve their fieldwork and fitness," Harmanpreet

“He (Laxman) motivated us a lot with anecdotes from his time about how the Indian [men’s] team went through the phase where they had to work on their field work and fitness and improve,” Harmanpreet © Getty

It may be the beginning of a new era in Indian women’s cricket, but there is also an all-embracing sense of stability amid this new start. At least in T20Is – where the debut of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and the 2023 World Cup beckons in eight months – little will change for Harmanpreet & Co. And they need to get off the ground as this three-game T20I series against host nation Sri Lanka is all they’re preparing to freeze their ideal combination.

To that end, both Harmanpreet Kaur and head coach Ramesh Powar had indicated before departure and the captain reiterated from Dambulla – the location of the T20Is – that the likely combination the team has in mind will get a consistent run to be able to put their foot forward and nail a CWG spot for himself. So the spotlight falls on comeback girls Jemimah Rodrigues – the star of the inaugural ‘The Hundred’ who failed to recoup her ODI spot for the World Cup – and Sabbhineni Meghana, who dazzled as a backup in New Zealand during her international comeback after six years in the wilderness. As India slips back into near-solid form from T20I, it’s almost confirmed that the former is reclaiming its one-drop spot in the T20I lineup after what had been turbulent last season.

“She is someone who is very experienced. I know she wasn’t part of the [ODI] Recently World Cup squad, but she’s someone who had done really well in the T20 side,” Harmanpreet said on the eve of the canvas, almost a sign of her return. Whatever opportunities come her way, she’s always ready to chat. It’s very important to me to keep talking to the players, whatever you’re up to. Because we only have three games here and it’s very difficult to give everyone equal opportunities. We will try to cover all areas where everyone can say they have enough opportunities to prepare to perform for the team.”

With Sneh Rana “equipped”, Harmanpreet and, now to some extent, finishers Pooja Vastrakar and Radha Yadav are the only role-specific mid-range options on the side oozing with some high-performing specialist openers from the domestic circuit. But over the years, India has learned to get the best out of them – no one is a better example of their retrofit experiments than Rodrigues or Yastika Bhatia, who have proven its adaptability at the highest level.

Armed with this outlook, Harmanpreet is confident its side can address longstanding concerns about maintaining momentum in the face of the failure of one or both of their explosive openers.

But more than their batting, which has a more or less fixed appearance, it is the relative inexperience of their fast bowling that will be thoroughly tested. India, or at least the selectors, has been moving in a very specific youth-oriented direction in the past 15 months regarding at least the tempo department, with even an experienced and performing Shikha Pandey struggling to fend off the competition. And as the two global tournaments coming up are in the UK and South Africa, the face-off between the four quicks on tour would be the ones to watch out for in this brief prep.

The long-term goal, however, remains to inculcate the winning habit that Powar has repeatedly talked about since taking the lead for a second stint with the team last season. Since the heartbreak of the 2016 World Cup at home and the subsequent mindset shift, starting with a captaincy change, T20 has been the format in which India has taken bigger leaps – even looking like a world champion in their day. But the trophy drought has continued after a handful of excruciating near misses.

“After the World Cup we have some time to talk to VVS” [Laxman] mister (Head of Cricket). The NCA has shown great interest in helping our women’s team improve and grow. We got the chance to talk to them and talk about the areas we can improve on. This was the first time we’ve had an opportunity like this,” Harmanpreet said of the role Laxman’s team played in their short NCA fitness camp a week before departure.

 "We need to improve our agility, we have quite a few young players, but they have no experience, so this is their chance to show their talent." Athapaththhu

“We need to improve our agility, we have quite a few young players, but they have no experience, so this is their chance to show their talent,” says Athapaththu ©Getty

“He motivated us a lot with anecdotes from his time about how the Indian [men’s] team went through the phase where they needed to work on and improve their fielding and fitness. About how they all individually put in their 10 percent extra effort. We then discussed as a team how we can do that little bit extra as a unit in two sessions. He was there the whole camp and he was in constant conversation with us. You need people around you who can motivate you and encourage you to improve. As a team, we are very happy to have him there and he was constantly giving us input and suggestions.”

Now they can put these new lessons learned to work and, incidentally, they could also potentially pick up a few lessons about resilience from their “transition” opponents.

In times of great political and economic strife across the length and breath of the country, cricket is a soothing distraction for the Sri Lankans. What the women’s team has been through in recent years probably pales in comparison to the trials and tribulations of the common man, but it was a mockery nonetheless.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a cascading effect on the already fragile health of women’s cricket on the island. Following their group stage exit at the T20 World Cup in Australia in March 2020, Athapaththu’s team went 22 months without a T20I until the CWG 2022 qualifiers in January of this year, and had to dive first in the 2021 ODI World Cup Qualifiers after a full two years off the field. Stripped of any international action, they fell in the rankings, and deadly enough not to even fight for a back door when the qualifier had to be canceled in the wake of the Omicron variant.

Ironically, they recovered from the setback to seal the final berth in Birmingham 2022 by knocking out the team that took them to the final World Cup spot – Bangladesh. Since then they have been convincingly whitewashed by Pakistan in three low scoring T20Is and would likely have met the same fate in their opening round of the 2022-25 ICC Women’s ODI Championship if not for their talisman captain’s counter-attack in Karachi.

Cricket may be a team game, but some individuals have always defied that idea. Athapaththu is one of them, she is the common denominator in many of her team’s recent victories and she almost single-handedly won some of them. As long as she’s there, Sri Lanka is always in with a scream. But much to her delight, that story shifts slowly and steadily.

Athapaththu had high praise for her deputy Harshitha Madavi, with whom she racked up a score of 152 runs in their 93-run victory over Pakistan, young spin-bowling all-rounder Kavisha Dilhari who, as a 17-year-old debutant, turned heads against this very opponent, veteran off spinner Oshadi Ranasinghe, who took six T20I wickets at an average of just 9, and teenage sensations Vishmi Gunaratne (top order batter) and Rashmi de Silva (leg spinner) who both impressed in the domestic season.

With a little more punch to their punch, Athapaththu believes, her team can beat India “in a few games” if they play to their potential. “We need to improve our agility, we have quite a few young players, but they have no experience, so this is their chance to show their talent in this format.” [ahead of CWG selection]†

“We also need to improve our field work because catches win games. The important thing is batting, so the batting coach has been working on that area and hopefully we can improve that in the series… This is a difficult tour, but if If we play to our potential, we can beat India.”

Teams including India on their previous trip have learned the hard way that Sri Lanka can turn out to be a handful just when it seems like they have no battle left in them. India is indeed still entering as overwhelming favorites, but in their own bubble, away from the tense atmosphere engulfing the island, and just as their male counterparts have done for the past two weeks, Athapaththu & Co hopes. in the same way their own happiness, however temporary.

Selection:

Sri Lanka:Chamari Athapaththu (c), Hasini Perera, Kavisha Dilhari, Nilakshi de Silva, Anushka Sanjeevani (wk), Oshadhi Ranasinghe, Sugandika Kumari, Inoka Ranaweera, Achini Kulasuriya, Harshitha Madavi (VC), Vishmi Gunaratne, Malshakan Shehanidha, Udeshi Rashmibodhani, Udeshi de Silva, Hansima Karunaratne, Kaushani Nuthyangana (wk), Sathya Sandeepani, Tharika Sewwandi

india: Harmanpreet Kaur (C), Smriti Mandhana (VC), Shafali Verma, Yastika Bhatia (wk), S Meghna, Deepti Sharma, Poonam Yadav, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Simran Bahadur, Richa Ghosh (wk), Pooja Vastrakar, Meghna Singh, Renuka Singh , Jemima Rodrigues, Radha Yadav.

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