India look to gather steam for WC qualification
India and New Zealand, the two teams languishing at the bottom of the ICC Women's Championship, will soon square off for a five-match ODI series in Bangalore. With points only from the first three matches carrying weight, and the sides separated by just one point, there is a lot riding on the games for both India and New Zealand.
Since direct qualification for the 2017 World Cup is made easier with a finish in the top four, the teams have been putting in the hard yards to win at least two of the first three matches. While the New Zealand side came to India 10 days before the start of the series, the India players warmed-up with the Challengers Trophy in Mysore from June 14 to 17 and a camp with the 21 probables just before the ODIs.
"What happens in Challengers is you have the cream of domestic players," allrounder Shikha Pandey said. "When you have the best 26 senior players plus you have the best 13 junior players, it's like the cream you are facing. So I would say the level is not exactly international but it's very close to international. So if you get to gauge where you stand, playing those three matches, it really helps a lot. And this is a really good build-up series for us."
With India currently rock bottom, the hosts will be targeting a clean sweep as it will shoot them straight to fourth place in the Championship.
"We know that we will be facing a well-drilled and talented New Zealand side," captain Mithali Raj said. "Our preparation has been good and there's a positive feeling in the squad that we can turn around our form and get the win. If we can execute our game-plan and play a consistent brand of attacking cricket, then we are confident that we can cause the White Ferns some problems.
"There are some new faces in the squad and we believe that they will supplement our squad for this series and going forward as well. There's a huge incentive for teams to perform well in this series and we're focused on the task at hand. We're excited to be playing at home and are hopeful that we can count on a strong following in Bangalore."
One of the new faces in the squad of 15 is uncapped wicketkeeper R Kalpana, who was picked even though the other two options - Sushma Verma and Taniya Bhatia - performed much better in the Challengers Trophy. While Kalpana scored only six runs in two innings and had four dismissals to her name, Verma ended with nine runs from three innings and an impressive 12 dismissal. Bhatia, meanwhile, accumulated 84 runs in two innings, with three dismissals.
Compared to New Zealand, who last played a series in February, India have not had as much international practice, having last played a series in November 2014, when they lost 2-1 to South Africa. That, however, is not bothering the players. Harmanpreet Kaur, who was the top-scorer in Challengers Trophy with 116 runs said: "I think we are fully prepared because we had a camp in Mysore and before that we played the Challengers Trophy. So I think this time our team is full ready. I don't think not playing international games for six months will affect us."
According to allrounder Jhulan Goswami, there is enough talent in the squad, especially from the junior levels, to match their opponents. And unlike Suzie Bates, who said their "focus is not just three first three matches," Goswami's belief was that those games were "most important."
"In the India team there are a lot of youngsters, most of them picked from Under-19 because they wanted to give them more opportunities to play against world-class teams," Goswami said. "Smriti Mandhana is also coming from Under-19 level, and few other girls too. We need to make sure we are giving them enough chance to settle down in international cricket and in the future they can show their talent.
"The first three ODIs are most important for us, all other countries also look forward to the first three matches as points count. But we have to follow the process and we have to play well throughout the tournament, we cannot rely on the first three matches. It's not like we'll focus only on first three matches and after that we just give up, it's not like that. Throughout the series we'll maintain the intensity level."
Pandey was frank and forthright about not having much of an idea about the opposition players but said that if New Zealand could surprise them, the opposite could also happen.
"We actually haven't seen them play much, the only source of information has been a few videos," Pandey said. "Otherwise we've just played one warm-up game against them during the last T20 World Cup so we don't really know them that well and there are many of them who are really young and also making their debut.
"If they can spring a surprise, we can also spring a surprise. It's the same both ways so we are well prepared for it. We have a lot of plans in place, if plan A doesn't work, we have plan B in place. So that's not much of a problem for us, we are ready for everything."
Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo