A lack of strong opening partnerships for India in the Women's World Cup has become a worrying sign for the team. Captain Mithali Raj said after their 115-run loss in Leicester on Saturday that a strong start is something the team had been looking forward to, especially while chasing 274 against South Africa, as it makes the task easier for the rest of the batting line-up.
"Yes, it's been happening since the West Indies game that the openers have not given us the start that we expect," Raj said after the match. "The way they (the openers) opened the World Cup campaign for us against England, we were expecting maybe one or two off games but it can't be four in a row. So that is a worrying factor because whether you bat first or chase, it's important your top order gives you those runs on the board. I feel that when you are chasing 270 there's always going to be pressure but you need the opening pair to give us a start so that the batters can take from thereon. Unfortunately, today we didn't get that."
India's openers Punam Raut and Smriti Mandhana scored 22 and 4 respectively as their partnership was broken in the second over of the chase when Marizanne Kapp had Mandhana caught at deep square leg. Since their dominating partnership of 144 in the first match against England, India's openers have produced stands of 0 against West Indies, 7 against Pakistan and 21 against Sri Lanka.
India's task of chasing became tougher when South Africa racked up a challenging total of 273 on the back of a blistering 65-ball 92 from opener Lizelle Lee and a steady 57 from captain Dane van Niekerk. India's decision to bowl was questioned as Lee started hammering sixes - seven in all - against spinners Ekta Bisht and Deepti Sharma who had troubled oppositions in the last few matches. Leicester, incidentally, is the same ground where England had amassed 377 and Australia had scored a stiff 290, both batting first against Pakistan. However, it is also where South Africa had bundled West Indies for only 48.
"We did ask few people here at the ground and they told us that the team that bats second has more percentage wins," Raj explained after the match. "And our matches with South Africa in the Qualifiers as well as in the Quadrangular Series, we probably have come close to 260, we lost one game though with 10 runs, that also was around 270 target. Considering these aspects, we chose to field first.
"I've seen the way they have batted and even though they lost a wicket in the early overs, Lee has played exceptionally well for that innings and that is what put them on the track. We did realise that her wicket was important, but I give full credit to her batting because her shots were very clean and she did play one of the best innings I have seen so far in the World Cup against us. The bowlers have done a decent job of holding them in the middle overs, we managed to pull ourselves back into the game and maybe a few shots later in the innings got them to 270."
Van Niekerk, who was named Player of the Match for her half-century and 4 for 22, dedicated her award to team-mate Lee while showering praises on her.
"First of all, this goes to Lizelle Lee," van Niekerk said. "I think she deserves it a lot more than I do. We said if we get more such trophies in the changing room, we have more better days than bad days. I think Lizelle Lee setup the game brilliantly well and I think she deserved a big hundred today. She's been brilliant, she strikes the ball as clean as anyone in the world and she showed it today. She stuck to her guns and she found her groove and her rhythm and that's the way she wants to bat and we back that all the way, it came off today. The shots she played was ridiculous and hopefully that form can continue for us."
Lee's knock had powered South Africa past 125 in 20 overs before they stuttered a bit around the 150-mark. Van Niekerk's fifty came in handy when she arrived at 160 for 4 in the 28th over and chaperoned the lower order to help them score 70 runs in the last 10 overs.
"Yeah, personally [one of my better performances] I guess, especially against a team like India and the form they are in," she said of her performance. "Coming into this game I thought they were the team to beat, and Australia, so it's always great to contribute. I just thought of taking it deep, I know my game well enough to say that I can take it away at the back end, struggled a bit, but I stuck to my plans and today it came off.
"While I was in there, we hit a bit of a slump and I said, 'If we can get 250-plus, we have something to bowl at'. We know how good their batting is but if we stick to our lines and lengths…I spent a bit of time there so I kind of got a feel of where the good lines and lengths were and I said to the bowlers, 'If we hit that consistently well, and we put them under pressure, hopefully it will go our way'."
The only criticism van Niekerk had for her team was for the bowlers, who dismissed India for 158 in 46 overs. She admitted she was being "harsh" on the bowlers, but only because they had taken seven Indian wickets within the first 20 overs, to set up a big win.
"I will probably be a bit harsh on my bowlers but I thought we had to get them out a bit earlier, especially having them seven down for 65," she said. "At the end of the day you don't want it to go that long but the wicket died down so you can only do so much on a wicket like that.
"We said we wanted all three facets of the game firing and we did that today, it wasn't as clinical as I hoped it would be, but a win is a win. We came here for two points and we got it. Everyone chipped in and it was a brilliant team performance."
India, placed second with eight points, will face Australia and New Zealand in the remaining matches while South Africa, placed fourth with seven points, will take on Sri Lanka and Australia.