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Young India seek game time with eye on World Cup

Even a 3-0 whitewash may not be sufficient for India women to finish in the top four on the Women's Championship and earn direct entry into next year's World Cup IDI/Getty

In March this year, India women's World Twenty20 campaign went up in smoke after their defeat to eventual winners West Indies women in a must-win clash. A team that was building up to challenge other contenders like Australia and England perhaps wilted under the pressure of expectation and playing on the biggest stage at home.

Yet, the team management drew solace from the fact that the young side would only learn from the experience. Mithali Raj, the captain, said "such situations" will only make the side tougher, when asked if it was stage fright.

The problem, though, has been that "such situations" haven't come about as often as Raj and Co would have liked. The BCCI's promise of "more cricket" to have them match-ready for the World Cup may have raised hopes, but it has not quite translated into action.

The team has not played an international fixture in nine months, and is preparing for a three-match ODI series at home against West Indies on the back of a month-long camp, a hastily-arranged Challenger series and the domestic one-day competition, where a majority of the first set of group matches were washed out. The rest were played on damp wickets, where Railways, with the presence of more than half the Indian squad, defended their title. It was largely a one-sided affair.

It is against this backdrop that the side will prepare for the ODI series against West Indies, which starts in Vijayawada on November 10. The matches will count towards the ICC Women's Championship that aims to identify four direct qualifiers for the World Cup, to be played in England next year. As things stand, Australia are the only side assured of direct entry, while England and West Indies are each one win away from securing their berths. That leaves three teams - New Zealand, South Africa and India - potentially fighting for one slot.

But with India's fixtures against Pakistan under a cloud - they could potentially lose six points - because of political tensions, the matches against West Indies could effectively be their last. Even a 3-0 whitewash may not be enough to finish in the top four, which means they are all but certain to head into the World Cup qualifiers in Sri Lanka in February.

"In a way, it is good that we get to play the qualifiers, because we get more game time before the World Cup," Raj said. "We will also get to play those four teams which we might be facing in the World Cup. It will be good, I think, given what the situation is. Ideally, it would have been nice to qualify directly, but we will look at this as an opportunity to play more matches."

The West Indies series will be important to narrow in on combinations for the World Cup. Allrounder Mona Meshram, legspinner Devika Vaidya and left-arm spinner Ekta Bisht have been recalled, while uncapped seamer Sukanya Parida has also earned a call-up. Meshram last played for India in April 2013, Vaidya has played only one T20I for India in November, 2014, and is uncapped in ODIs. Bisht had missed the home ODIs against Sri Lanka earlier this year.

With Raj hinting at the 2017 World Cup being her last, the team management and selectors have identified Harmanpreet Kaur as a potential leader, at least for the shortest format to begin with. But, with the focus firmly on ODIs, as was the case with T20Is last season, Purnima Rau, the coach, underlined the importance of making every opportunity count.

In that sense, this will be a test for Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet, who are both set to play in the Women's Big Bash League later in the season, to carry the team's batting and ease the burden on Raj. There's also an opportunity for Veda Krishnamurthy to showcase consistency. The bowling department, led by Jhulan Goswami, is spin-heavy. Only time will tell if that's a conscious decision, though, considering it is West Indies' weakness.

That the series has been scheduled at a venue that the teams described as "spin friendly" may prove to be a blessing in disguise, considering the World Cup qualifiers in Colombo will be played in similar conditions. A solid show against West Indies could possibly be a giant leap in India's quest to qualify for the World Cup. A setback, however, could be yet another classic case of 'two steps forward and four steps back'.