South Africa Women 269 for 3 (Lee 69, du Preez 61, Goodall 59*, Wolvaardt 53) beat India Women 266 for 4 (Raut 104*, Kaur 54, Mithali 45, Sekhukhune 2-63) by seven wickets
India were given a reality check of just how far behind their ODI batting game is that even their best score at home since the 2013 World Cup - 266 for 4 - didn't prove enough in the fourth ODI against South Africa in Lucknow. Equally worrying would be their thin seam bowling reserves in the absence of Jhulan Goswami, who missed out due to a hand injury, and the rested Shikha Pandey.
Monica Patel, the left-arm seamer, was dropped after just one outing, while Mansi Joshi, who replaced her, leaked runs in her opening spell. Taking the attack to her were South Africa's stand-in captain Laura Wolvaardt and Lizelle Lee, who plundered their second century stand of the series to set up the chase for the calm Mignon du Preez and Lara Goodall to steer them closer. They completed their highest successful run chase in ODIs as they won by seven wickets to seal the series with one match remaining. Incidentally, all four games so far have been won by the side chasing.
Where Australia have made 250-plus in ten of the 12 ODIs when batting first since 2018, this was only India's third score in the same period - which is the least among the top five teams in women's cricket. And while the 266 was by no means a bad score, India hedged all their bets on spin - employing four regulars and a fifth bowler in Harmanpreet Kaur - to do all the running. But on a surface that didn't break up as much as India would've hoped for, this didn't pay off.
Lee took the attack to Rajeshwari Gayakwad and debutant Radha Yadav in the powerplay, the sweep being the most productive stroke. Where India hit only three boundaries in the first seven overs, South Africa smashed ten. This laid for their middle order to knock off the remaining runs, which du Preez and Laura Goodall did by putting together 103 at close to a run-a-ball. Every time there appeared to be an inkling of pressure, du Preez found ways to pick boundaries and keep the required rate no more than a run-a-ball in the last 12 overs.
All of this meant Punam Raut's third ODI century, a pugnacious knock where she seemed to have overcome issues in turning strike, and Harmanpreet Kaur's blistering 34-ball 55, her first ODI fifty since 2018, went in vain. Where the century stand between Raut and Mithali Raj, who made 45, to lift India in the middle overs seemed industrious, Lee and Wolvaardt's century stand had a bruising effect on India.
Although India hit back to remove Lee and Woolvardt in quick succession, the strong groundwork left du Preez and Goodall enough time to work their way into an innings before launching into the target. Lee was lbw trying to sweep Harmanpreet off a length for a 75-ball 69 in the 23rd over, while Woolvardt was out in the 29th, caught behind to give Joshi a wicket in her comeback over after a poor opening spell. Between Lee's wicket and the 32nd over, South Africa failed to hit a boundary to briefly allow India's spinners some leeway. But the stranglehold over the South Africans was far too brief.
Along the way, India should've had Goodall on 25, but failed to cash in as Sushma Verma first missed a regulation stumping off Deepti Sharma, and then a run-out off the same delivery as du Preez tried to pinch a leg-bye to the striker's end. Off the next ball, Goodall, as if adding insult to injury, walloped an inside-out drive over extra cover, up the tempo. It was as if the reprieve proved to be a release for her. Goodall went on to remain unbeaten on 59, topping off her knock by reverse-sweeping the spinners and more importantly seeing South Africa home.
For much of her knock, Du Preez, meanwhile, was calm, calculative, and used her crease superbly to cut and pull, particularly severe on Poonam Yadav, whose length and flight she disturbed quite effectively by using her feet. When du Preez brought up her fifty, it was her first in India in a career that is now nearing a decade-and-a-half. Such was South Africa's dominance towards the end that even her wicket, in trying to hit out, with the visitors needing 31 from 34 hardly induced any flutter.
Earlier in the day, Raut and Mithali, not for the first time in this series, did the heavy lifting for India after India lost Smriti Mandhana and Priya Punia. The third-wicket pair put on a century stand, their seventh together, before Raut carried on bringing up a magnificent 104 not out. Then, Harmanpreet injected end-overs momentum of the kind not seen in the recent past from India.
Their approach in the latter half of the partnership was in sharp contrast to the watchful approach early on - India played as many as 40 dot balls in the first nine overs as Punia, coming in for Jemimah Rodrigues, looked to get her eye in. Mandhana was out nicking to Lee at slip to give Shabnim Ismail her 150th international wicket in the fifth over.
They may have ended with much lesser if not for Kaur, who struck five boundaries in her first 10 balls and muscling her way to a half-century. It made you wonder if she should be batting slightly higher. Also, it made you wonder how if India would score a lot more than they normally do if the batting tempo of this kind is sustained right through the innings. They have another game, though, to build on these gains even if they may not have a trophy to take home.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo