The winds of change are here.
First MS Dhoni, now Mithali Raj. Two pillars of Indian cricket have been given subtle messages that they aren't automatic picks in T20Is anymore.
Dhoni's exclusion was for a bilateral series against West Indies and Australia. With the World T20 15 months away, the selectors felt it was an opportunity to see how good Rishabh Pant can be both in front and behind the stumps. In contrast, Raj's exclusion came in a World T20 semi-final, against the very side that broke their hearts in the World Cup final last year.
And so, as one India batsman after another squandered the launch pad set by Smriti Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues in Antigua, the cameras panned to Raj. Sitting without the bib meant for substitutes, she was typically expressionless. It was the first time since her debut tour in 1999 that she wasn't part of an Indian XI despite being available. Was it a good decision? Social media didn't think so.
If this was 2012, a women's team selection would've escaped the eyes of most cricket fans in the country. At the World T20 that year, after India's winless campaign, Raj was asked to look left and right by the cameraperson while answering questions from a lone journalist at the press conference. Why? So it appeared as if she was talking to a room full of journalists.
That this call elicited debate and became a trending topic on Twitter was down to the improved visibility of women's cricket in India. The sport is now firmly in the public consciousness and it was clear that the decision wasn't received well by the fans.
The outcome notwithstanding, it was a bold statement from the team management. Ramesh Powar's appointment as coach on an interim basis in July started with him needing to mend a "disturbed side" that didn't gel with his predecessor Tushar Arothe. That partly stemmed from a lack of confidence shown towards the younger players. Now, here was a coach willing to back his young players even if it meant dropping India's biggest match-winner of two decades for a crunch game.
Except, in this case, it was a costly miscalculation.
India were playing the second semi-final on a used surface that was keeping low and turning square. But their batsmen kept going for their shots. Could they have taken cue from watching Australia negotiate spin earlier in the day? Meg Lanning, a fierce ball-striker, was happy to just nudge the ball around, realising that where 165 or 170 may have been par in Guyana, 140 was more than good enough in North Sound.
India have largely relied on Smriti Mandhana upfront and Harmanpreet Kaur towards the end. There were question marks over Taniya Bhatia's role as a batsman, particularly at the top of the order. Coming into the game, she averaged 9.62 from nine T20I innings. Her 66-ball 68 in an ODI victory over Sri Lanka may have tempted the team management to give her a go, but it hasn't worked all tournament and only went unnoticed because India finished the group stages undefeated.
That isn't to suggest Raj should've opened, even though her strike-rate this year has been close to 105. Or that India couldn't win without her. After all, it was only a few days ago that they beat Australia emphatically without Raj in the XI. But in a semi-final, being able to call on her experience, would have been handy.
India's batting order was always going to be fluid. This was known on the opening day of the World T20, when Raj was pushed down below No. 7. She would be insurance against unexpected wobbles, as was the case against Ireland, when she stuck on despite the fall of wickets at the other end to make 51 valuable runs.
India could have used that insurance against England too, slipping as they did from 89 for 2 to 94 for 5 in the space of eight deliveries. But that would've meant a change in team composition.
Anuja Patil's performance, with her low-arm, fast and street-smart offspin in her only game, against Australia, had made her key amid a clutch of other spinners in D Hemalatha, Deepti Sharma and Radha Yadav. India didn't even bowl their only fast bowler, Arundhati Reddy, against England, a validation that they believed in 'spin to win'. So, while the thinking may have stemmed from not wanting to change their bowling combination, the team management failed to weigh Veda Krishnamurthy's effectiveness against Raj's consistency. This tactical blunder may have been the difference between putting up 125 and then attacking with a completely different mindset, as opposed to limping to 112 and struggling to fight back.
So, just like that, there is now a question mark over one of the most prolific batsmen in women's cricket. What happens next?