Villani thrives on mix of freedom, smart cricket

Elyse Villani sweeps en route to her 53 IDI/Getty Images

Pressure can either induce panic or bring about an uninhibited approach. For Elyse Villani, it was the latter. The end result was a blistering half-century against Sri Lanka Women, where she swept and pulled her way in Meg Lanning's company to give Australia Women a win that rejuvenated them ahead of the bigger battles at the World T20.

Villani's performances would have brought relief to the Australia camp, given how their top order has failed in challenging conditions. They were 9 for 3 against South Africa's pace, while New Zealand's spin had them choked at 4 for 4 in their second game. The pitches in Nagpur aided the slower bowlers, no doubt, but the manner of Australia's top-order implosion did the team no favours.

Villani and Alyssa Healy, her opening partner, had tallied all of 11 runs in four innings coming into the game against Sri Lanka. Villani had scores of 4 and 0. Indecision resulted in her dismissal in the previous games. Against South Africa, she was late on the stroke and played on to Shabnim Ismal. Against New Zealand, she skipped down the pitch, only to chip the ball to mid-on. The reluctance to go through with the shot seemed somewhat dictated by the nature of the surfaces.

She hadn't played in the series against India, but her performances in the Women's Big Bash League for Perth Scorchers - 326 runs in 15 innings - couldn't cover up for her lack of form. One fifty in 10 innings since 2015 resulted in her getting an axe for the T20Is against India. But Grace Harris's poor form meant Villani was back for the three-match T20I series in New Zealand in February.

Scores of 3, 6 and 6 in the series once again cast question marks over her form, but an injury ruled Harris out of the World T20 and came as a blessing in disguise once again for Villani. The build-up was enough indication of the pressure on her going into Thursday's game.

Add to that the prospect of having to chase 124 against a largely spin-based attack she hadn't faced before - this was, interestingly, the first T20I between both sides. There would have been a few flutters, which she did well to conceal while at the crease, but later admitted how tough it was personally to get going.

Did her mode of dismissals seem to have a bearing on her game? It didn't look like. There were, however, a few edges that flew off the bat, shots that didn't go where she intended and balls she played and missed. Many of those could have resulted in her downfall, but the bottom line was she came through unbeaten, striking a half-century off 36 balls and sharing a 98-run partnership with her captain, Lanning.

"It's always disappointing when your training doesn't always translate into performances, but I'm happy to get some runs tonight," she said, wearing a serious look. You couldn't judge from her body language if she was relieved. She paused, then went on. "I think in the past two games, I haven't faced too many balls. Today, I wanted to give myself time and play to my strengths. Tried to play down the ground and stick to the sweep, and it worked."

She revealed there was a conscious effort from the batting group to cut down mistakes. One of those was to rule out playing predetermined strokes, which resulted in their undoing against New Zealand in Nagpur. "It was pretty obvious we were below par," she said. "Every member was disappointed. We wanted to cut down the risks, at the same time back ourselves, basically a mix of freedom and smart cricket. Moving forward we are clear on what we want to do."

The serious tone and demeanour had one wondering what you could do to lighten the mood. Then she was asked about the pitch, and Villani's eyes lit up, as if to suggest she was waiting to speak about the surfaces that have come under so much scrutiny. She laughed, paused, laughed again. "It's easy to say this was the best pitch, since I got runs isn't it?" she asked. "But honestly, this has been the best pitch to bat on in the tournament so far. We also learnt that sometimes you can't always play like you do on Australian pitches, but this will give us the confidence."

History suggests Villani hasn't always been consistent, even though her promise has never been in doubt. From Australia's point of view, they would be hoping this is the start of a purple patch, for they will need returns on investment if they are to remain the dominating force they have been at the Women's World T20.