India women brace for a series with many implications

Mithali Raj and Veda Krishnamurthy sprint between wickets Getty/ICC

Starting from scratch

With less than seven months until the World T20, India are set to play their first T20I in more than a year, having not played a single match in the format in all of 2017. And therefore, despite beating South Africa 2-1 in the ODIs, they will start the five-match T20I series with a few questions to answer.

It won't be the same team, in the first place, with the captaincy changing hands from Mithali Raj to Harmanpreet Kaur, with T20 specialist Anuja Patil reintegrated, and two 17-year-olds - Jemimah Rodrigues, who sat out the entire ODI leg, and the Baroda allrounder Radha Yadav - potentially making their international debuts.

The series will test India's bench strength ahead of a home season that features Australia and England, and also help gauge the merit behind the selectors leaving out Sushma Verma - who was until recently the first-choice wicketkeeper across formats - from the T20Is in favour of Nuzhat Parween and the uncapped Taniya Bhatia.

Harmanpreet's moment of reckoning

Against a robust South African T20 side, and with a transitioning Indian 20-overs side to preside over, this series will test Harmanpreet's mettle as captain at a time when she has scaled new heights in terms of stature, marketability and self-assuredness as an international cricketer.

Harmanpreet's T20I captaincy record is, on the surface, hugely impressive: India's win-loss ratio of 2.250 under her easily dwarfs the figures achieved under her predecessors Raj, Jhulan Goswami and Anjum Chopra. Unlike those three, however, she is yet to win a match against a non-subcontinental side. The one time India have played a non-subcontinental opponent in Harmanpreet's tenure, they were whitewashed 3-0 - at home that too - to West Indies in November 2016.

Now she has an opportunity to correct that blemish in her record. She will want to lead by example, scoring consistent and quick runs with the bat, contribute a few wily overs of offspin, and inspire her side with her work on the field. The T20I series will test her reputation as India's most explosive batsman, and ask her if she can establish herself as the fulcrum around which the team builds its plans for the World T20 in November.

The batting-order challenge

It is unlikely the team would look beyond an opening combination featuring Raj and Smriti Mandhana, given Raj's prolific returns of 49*, 36, 62 and 73* in her last four T20I outings and Mandhana's established role at the top of the order. What comes after is less certain: there is a case for Harmanpreet to slot herself at first drop, to amplify her chances of getting her eye in before launching the big ones - a style of play different to potential No. 4 Veda Krishnamurthy's gung-ho approach from the outset.

All four of Harmanpreet's T20I half-centuries, including two unbeaten 60s in losing causes, have come when she has walked in with 10 or more overs left in the innings. It is a fact that she should keep in mind while drawing up the batting order. Even in the WBBL, her returns this season, while batting mostly at No. 5 (107 runs at an average of 21.40 and a strike rate of 95.53), have fallen steeply from the heights she achieved with the Sydney Thunder in 2016-17 (296 runs at 59.20 and 116.99), when she typically batted at No. 4.

Meanwhile, Krishnamurthy's fifties in the last two ODIs and a boundary-laden 40 in the final game of an otherwise lukewarm maiden WBBL season, bodes well for the team. Her form, and Anuja's versatility - she is capable of holding one end up in the event of early wickets or pinch quick runs with inventive strokeplay - could even allow India to promote Shikha Pandey from her usual lower-middle-order position. Recently, Pandey made two successive, unbeaten and match-winning half-centuries in the inter-state T20 tournament - 55 off 54 balls and 92 off 76 - while opening the batting. A promotion for the seam-bowling allrounder could turn out to be one of India's most purposeful punts, particularly after she hammered 31 off 16 balls in the third ODI.

Nerves, nerves, nerves

The batting capitulation in last year's World Cup final may have been partially abetted by the never-experienced-before 26,500-strong crowd at Lord's, but India had no such defence for their implosion on the field in the third ODI on Saturday in a near-empty stadium in Potchefstroom. Their sloppiness cost them the chance of completing a maiden bilateral-series whitewash against South Africa, and also some momentum leading into the T20Is. India's lack of a plan against Dane van Niekerk's innovations and Mignon du Preez's discipline was exposed further by dropped catches, overthrows and shoddy wicketkeeping in the back end of their defence of 240.

India will, therefore, need to work on keeping their composure in clutch phases during the T20I series. In a similar vein, they will need to switch their minds off the knowledge that the last three T20Is will be televised as part of double-headers with the men's games. Unpleasant memories from similar situations during the 2016 World T20 at home should hold India in good stead in warding off the pressure that comes with a women's team being on television and being watched by their male counterparts in the company of a likely decent turnout at venues such as the Wanderers, SuperSport Park and Newlands.