Mithali Raj wants runs and partnerships ‘rather than thinking about fearless cricket’

Cricket

Mithali Raj, India’s ODI captain, has called for greater accountability from the opening pair of Smriti Mandhana, especially, and Shafali Verma after the two fell for low scores in India’s nine-wicket loss in the first ODI in Mackay. While a better start – the pair fell in quick succession after adding 31 – might have helped India put up more than the 225 for 8 they managed, better bowling could have made things tough for Australia in their chase. They eventually got to their target in just 41 overs, and Raj was unhappy about the performance of the spinners as well.

“The opening partnership – if they can give us a good start, clearly the middle order can take the momentum from there,” Raj told reporters after the match. “But if you lose wickets, you actually have to build an innings in the first ten overs. Smriti [16 in 18 balls] has been on the international circuit for a while, so we would expect some runs from her.

“When you know the sort of batting line-up the Australians have, anything closer to 250 is what we were looking at, but losing two wickets, especially batters like Smriti and Shafali [8 in 10 balls], in the powerplay itself, it was important the middle order starts to compensate for that and build a partnership there. And that’s what we did with Yastika [Bhatia, the debutant, who scored a 51-ball 35], but then again, we didn’t get enough partnerships in the lower-middle order.

“You always bat according to the situation. Of course, the players need to play shots, but it doesn’t mean you be reckless. We need to now actually have partnerships rather than thinking about fearless cricket. The girls need to get down to developing some partnerships in the middle and that will definitely give them confidence at some point to play fearlessly.”

Both Mandhana and Verma fell to the 18-year-old quick Darcie Brown after India were asked to bat on a pitch with bounce, pace and carry. The two have opened together in 25 T20Is, but only three times before this in ODIs, adding 23, 56 and 46, all in England in June.

The relative inexperience of the 17-year-old Shafali means the team management would like to give her “breathing space“, but Mandhana, who has over 140 India caps, has struggled for consistency in limited-overs cricket since 2020. In nine ODI innings this year, against South Africa at home and in England before the latest outing, Mandhana has only one fifty and six scores under 30 in a total of 244 runs at an average of 30.50.

In a post-match interview with the host broadcaster on Tuesday, Raj made it clear that “when you’re put in to bat, you expect an opening partnership of minimum 50 runs.” Against a well-rounded Australia attack, India had just one 50-plus stand, between Bhatia and Raj, who added 77 for the third wicket, with the captain continuing to play the anchor as she went on to score her fifth straight fifty in the format.

“Yastika – she had a very good [preparatory] camp in Bangalore. She was among runs and she continued that even in the practice game, whatever little she scored she was quite impressive and that is why without a doubt we picked her today in place of Harman [Harmanpreet Kaur] because Harman was injured,” Raj said. “The order we sent her [in] she was quite positive out there to score runs.”

On her own performance – a 59th ODI fifty but at a sedate scoring rate (she took 12 balls to get off the mark and 92 deliveries to reach her half-century) – Raj said, “It is always in my mind to improve on that [strike rate] aspect. I wouldn’t say I definitely don’t think about it, but it’s not something that crosses my mind when I walk in to bat.

“I’ve always felt no matter how many runs I score there’s always some room for improvement. I want to evolve as a player, too. I know I’ve been scoring runs but it isn’t enough for the team to win, so there’s always room for improvement.”

As there is on the strike-rotation front. “As far as running between the wickets is concerned, there’s still a lot to be achieved in that aspect,” Raj agreed. “This is not just about the running between the wickets, but overall the batting department needs to work hard because just not running, but even in batting [because] as batters you need to play and score runs.”

With just 225 on the board, India needed a lot from the three-pronged spin contingent of Deepti Sharma, Sneh Rana and Poonam Yadav. Given how seamlessly Australia blunted India’s attack, with their top three of Alyssa Healy, Rachael Haynes and Meg Lanning blitzing solid half-centuries and putting on century stands for the first two wickets, Raj admitted that there was a concern.

“Yes, we do have a lot to work in terms of our bowling department because predominantly we are spinners, a spin attack, and spinners are getting hit everywhere, so that’s something we need to work on,” she said. “The wicket is good for batters as well as fast bowlers. Having said that, the bowlers need to be a little more tighter in their line and length on a wicket like this, which we did get to see with the Australian fast bowlers but not really with the Indian seamers.”

Though Raj said she was unlikely to tinker much with the starting XI, she kept the possibility open for “maybe one or two changes” for the second ODI, on Friday at the same venue.

Complimenting the debutants Bhatia, wicketkeeper-batter Richa Ghosh and pacer Meghna Singh for doing “really well”, Raj did hint at a possible promotion to No. 3 for Ghosh.

“We definitely are looking into all that,” she said. “But because it is her first game, you also want players to have some confidence in the role they’ve already played; Richa has already been part of the T20I squad and scored runs there at a particular order.

“So, when she’s making her debut, you want to give a comfort level to a player get into the same role they’ve played and experienced. That is why she went in the order she did. But, yes, she was very impressive today and, clearly, it does put thoughts in our head that we could promote her up the order.”

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha

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