India, New Zealand in knockout shootout
The last day of the league phase will determine the fourth semi-finalist of the tournament, with Australia, England and South Africa already through. Much of the focus will be in Derby, with a knockout between India and New Zealand. It's a clash between a side fighting demons from within against one that is under pressure to live up to their pre-tournament billing of favourites.
India's ride has been like that of an airplane that has shuddered at the first sign of turbulence. After four wins in four, a semi-final spot seemed a mere formality. But a spectacular batting collapse against fiery South Africa brought them crashing down. Australia ground them further by turning a potentially tricky chase into a canter on a turner after their bowlers managed to keep Mithali Raj, the highest run-getter in women's ODIs, quiet.
India's problem has stemmed from the lack of more robust batting approach. Walking the thin line between being conventional and over-cautious has put immense pressure on a young line-up.
Smriti Mandhana's scores - 90 and 106 not out - in the first two games seemed to suggest a changing trend, but her failures in the remaining four matches left the other batsmen without a base to work from - a weakness Australia and South Africa ruthlessly exposed. Harmanpreet Kaur, who has had a quiet tournament, will be eager to make a mark when it matters. She's carrying a bruised right shoulder, but there's no imminent threat of her missing out.
India's spin attack has been their nerve-center, often holding up the bowling even in slightly unsuitable conditions. When it has paid off, like it did in their defence of 281 against England in the tournament opener or the defence of 169 against Pakistan, it has looked spectacular. But, more often than not, the pressure to make up for lack of penetration from the pacers has pushed the spinners to try too many things, giving an opposition like Australia an opening.
If there's one team that knows all too well the feeling of not living up to expectations, it's New Zealand, and their performance in key matches at world events is something India would do well to take note of. At every ICC event since 2012, they've gone in as one of the favourites, but have somehow found ways to capitulate. At the 2013 World Cup, the captain, Suzie Bates, destroyed bowling attacks to finish with the Golden Bat, but was left inconsolable after a loss to West Indies upset their hopes of reaching the final. At the 2014 World T20, they were cruising after wins in their first three games but were edged out of the semi-final race after a loss in their final league match. At the 2016 World T20 too, they were firmly in command in the semi-final but faltered under pressure.
New Zealand are also grappling with fitness concerns around Sophie Devine, who can muscle the ball a long way and help the side break the run-rate muddle, like she did in the 41-ball 93 against Pakistan. Her ability to replicate that quality consistently has added an aura around the New Zealand batting that also boasts of some equally fearsome batsmen in Bates, Rachel Priest and Amy Satterthwaite. Against England, Devine was visibly hampered with a side strain and it remains to be seen if New Zealand would risk playing her even if she isn't fully fit.
Like India, New Zealand's spinners have enjoyed bowling in the tournament. Amelia Kerr, the 16-year old legspinner, and Leigh Kasperek, the offspinner, are two trump cards Bates has often turned to for wickets. For all the batting might of both sides, it could turn out to be a contest of which side's spinners rise to the occasion.
Intermittent showers are predicted in Derby on Saturday. New Zealand would want none of it for a washout would mean an early exit. India, on the other hand, will look for their fourth consecutive win at the ground in this competition, having previously beaten England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo