The World Twenty20 was built up beautifully for India Women to create a splash. A record T20I series win in Australia and a creditable showing in the ODIs that followed raised hopes of an improved show at their own party. India hadn't qualified for the semi-finals since 2010, but were primed to break the deadlock this time around. It looked like the team had finally managed to reduce the burden on Mithali Raj's shoulders.
A whitewash of Sri Lanka Women at home in February ensured the engine was revving up at the right time. Talks of a women's IPL were gathering steam. Contracts meant they were no longer semi-professionals who turned up at more camps than matches. Evolution of a core group of players around Raj pointed to a giant party waiting to take off. Like at a Formula One race, they overcame numerous challenges and change in strategies to qualify on pole position. But an engine freeze as the three lights went off resulted in their campaign going up in smoke in a manner not many had seen coming.
Barring their tournament opener against Bangladesh, where they muscled 163 - their highest-ever T20I score - they registered scores of 96, 90 and 111. Pitches weren't tailor made for batsmen to simply hit through the line, but the manner in which a young batting line-up, that appeared to have turned a corner in Australia, caved in was a matter of concern.
Against Pakistan and England, the spinners kept India alive by using the conditions as an ally. On Sunday, while conditions helped them - although not to the extent it did in Dharamsala - the bowlers were guilty of slipping into a run-containing mode once the early damage was done. While they didn't easily give away boundaries, Stafanie Taylor and Deandra Dottin rotated the strike tactfully in a 77-run stand off just 71 balls to expose India's fielding.
There were misfields, fumbles, throws that went wide. All that amounted to India conceding at least 15 more than they should have. Even the comeback towards the death - they picked up five wickets for 11 runs off the last 14 balls - couldn't mask their fielding lapses, despite Anuja Patil's catch, running in from long-on and then dishing in a full-length dive to dismiss Taylor.
Although dejected, Raj chose to focus on the positives. "With this performance, we aren't on par with them, but the girls have done very well," she said. "It's a matter of pulling off one game that will give them a lot of confidence, like we did in Australia. When it comes to World Cup, there will always be pressure. The girls need to accept that and work around it. Even in the 2013 World Cup, in a very important match we somewhere lost the grip of it."
She was forthright in her assessment of where the team stood, but was the first to put her hand up and say she had let the team down when it mattered most. "Though I was among runs, I didn't quite score when the team really looked up to me," she reflected on the scores of 16, 20 and 0 in her last three games. "This has not been the best of the tournaments for me, but in the T20 format, you can't always be very consistent. Ups and downs are a part of the format. In the last three games, the batting unit was not coordinated.
"We had those players who scored those 20s and 30s but we haven't got somebody who could take the team along. Even those who hit form in a particular day could not carry the team along. That's something we need to work on. Though we could not make it to the semis, I am proud of the way the girls have fought in the last three games and got the team back into the game. There is always slip-up in the game, but with this experience of having handled pressure, the girls will be able to do better in the coming tournaments."
Over the course of the tournament, Raj has been repeatedly asked about the surfaces dished out for the tournament. On a couple of occasions, she even reasoned that the women's game needed a 150 v 150 contest, and not 100 v 90 as has been the case this time around. On Sunday, questions about the pitch resurfaced again, but this time around Raj wasn't in the mood to use that as an excuse to mask their lacklustre batting.
Instead, she said the team would be better off training to become fitter, and that the difference against West Indies Women was in the agility of both sides. "In big events, it is very important to be consistent in the departments where you are doing well," she said. "As a fielding unit, we were inconsistent. When we thought we were squeezing them for runs, we let down ourselves with slip-ups through boundaries. Fitness is something we need to work on, especially in our fielding and running between the wickets."
Jhulan Goswami's run-out with India needing 12 off nine balls highlighted what Raj was trying to say. Having slogged the ball to wide long-on, Goswami stuttered while turning for a second run, even as the throw was fired towards the wicketkeeper's end. Two seconds of indecision resulted in a terrible mix-up that left Goswami and India high and dry. While it's impossible to say what could have been had Goswami hared back for the second, that it was a huge moment in the match was an understatement.
"As far as planning strategies go, the girls have to work really hard on their fitness and running between the wickets. At crucial times, it is important to know how to have composed mind. In that run out, had Jhulan stood her end, we probably would have lost Shikha, but Jhulan was in good flow. That is the biggest difference between good sides and very good sides. We haven't been able to do that."
The end of India's tournament leaves them with little to look forward to over the next two months. The absence of an FTP has somewhat been covered up by the need to play the other seven Full Members in a series of at least three ODIs to identify four direct qualifiers for the 2017 Women's World Cup.
With six wins in 15 matches, India are currently placed fifth, with games against Pakistan, West Indies to come. "We are looking forward for the one-day World Cup and again the work starts from the beginning," Raj said. The girls will take a lot of positives from this series and try to implement them in the upcoming games heading into that tournament."