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Will Mithali Raj bat at No. 3? Can Shafali Verma silence her inner demons?

Australia provide India the best opportunity to make key decisions across departments before next year's World Cup

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
India may need the prolific Mithali Raj at No. 3 instead of lower down the order  •  Getty Images

India may need the prolific Mithali Raj at No. 3 instead of lower down the order  •  Getty Images

Five months out from the 2022 ODI World Cup in New Zealand, with the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games in the T20 format to follow, Australia provide India the best opportunity to make key selection calls across departments.
The multi-format points-based series that begins with three ODIs, from Tuesday in Mackay, also features three T20Is and a pink-ball Test in between. The ODIs, India's longer-formats captain Mithali Raj and head coach Ramesh Powar have stressed, remain the priority, with next year's World Cup in mind. ESPNcricinfo highlights some of the talking points as India look to bounce back from back-to-back series defeats this year.
India's No. 1 batter should reprise No. 3 role
The one-off warm-up game on Saturday may have been an indication that Raj, India's most prolific batter in ODIs, may at long last move higher than the No. 4 position that has come to be her assigned role since the tour of New Zealand in early 2019. For 18 innings straight since, Raj has batted two-down or lower, scoring 40 or more in 11 of those occasions, seven half-centuries included. India won nine of those matches and lost as many.
Through that period, the No. 3 slot changed hands among Punam Raut, Jemimah Rodrigues, Deepti Sharma and Harmanpreet Kaur, with none of them able to make the position their own. That India had to seek out a first-drop beyond Raj in the first place was down in part to the dearth of a first-choice opening partner to Smriti Mandhana. That conundrum was at least temporarily put to rest by Shafali Verma's Test and ODI debuts in the UK in June, where she opened with varying success, and is expected to continue in the role in Australia.
Raj, for her part, shut out all chatter around her strike rate with four successive fifties in her last four outings, at a time the rest of the top and middle order betrayed want of application or form or both. In the warm-up, Raj batted at one-down, but fell for just 1. The score notwithstanding, if India are to make the optimum use of their most reliable batter, the No. 3 should no longer be in question.
Instead, the role should be assumed by the anchor with the proven ability to bat long and deep while churning out substantial knocks, around whom the rest of the line-up paces its innings.
Where Shafali's mind is without fear
Since her chart-topping 163-run tally in India's runners-up finish at the 2020 T20 World Cup and a solid performance in the preceding tri-series in Australia on the same tour, Shafali, the team's most destructive batter since 2019, went more than a year without playing international cricket, (inexplicably) faced non-selection for the ODI series at home against South Africa, made a record-breaking Test debut in England, faced mixed returns in her maiden ODI series against them, and etched #VermavsBrunt into cricketing lore.
Shafali's duel with Katherine Brunt, though, exposed vulnerabilities against the short ball and the one slightly outside the off stump. If the 2020 tour of Australia offered evidence of a 16-year-old Shafali's fearlessness, the visit to England laid bare cobwebs in it birthed by the sustained pressure England's well-rounded attack and, specifically, its relentless spearhead applied.
Her strokeplay and approach when feeling for deliveries in the corridor of uncertainty or meeting shortish lengths betrayed a cluttered mind. A solitary 30-plus score in eight innings for Birmingham Phoenix in the Hundred followed ODI returns of 15, 44, and 19 against England.
Shafali missed Phoenix's eliminator to return early to India, but a mandatory seven-day quarantine meant she could not attend the preparatory camp in Bengaluru before entering another 14-day quarantine in Brisbane. In the warm-up game, she hit five fours in her 21-ball 27, but was dismissed by a back-of-the-length ball from uncapped quick Stella Campbell. On evidence of the pace and bounce Campbell and her fellow next-gen Australian quicks unleashed on Saturday, an uncluttered mind could help Shafali achieve more on the tour than all the shots in the book might.
Harmanpreet and Gayakwad's fitness
ESPNcricinfo reported last month how the selection committee took a gamble by naming the India T20I captain Harmanpreet and left-arm spinner Rajeshwari Gayakwad in the 22-player squad for Australia despite the duo not having been put through the paces following injury concerns. Harmanpreet, who ended her Hundred stint prematurely after just three innings owing to a quadriceps injury, was left out of the warm-up game, though she is understood to have batted in the nets on Saturday.
Gayakwad, who missed the tour of England with a knee injury and a bout of Covid-19, bowled six overs then, conceding 50 without getting a wicket. Ekta Bisht, too, played that game, and it's likely only one of Bisht and Gayakwad will start on Wednesday, with wristspinner Poonam Yadav, the pick of India's attack in the warm-up with 3 for 28, and offspin-bowling allrounders Deepti and Sneh Rana rounding out the spin contingent.
Should Harmanpreet's return to full fitness require more time, the uncapped Baroda left-hand batter Yastika Bhatia could be a look-in, ahead of Rodrigues, for at least the first ODI by virtue of her 42-ball 41 at No. 4 in the warm-up. Besides, she is also believed to have made an impression in the open-wicket sessions during the Bengaluru camp, where she fared well in the target-oriented intra-squad batting contests, too. At any rate, the 23-year-old Yastika's reputation on the domestic circuit as a technically sound, level-headed top-order batter, who can also keep, should see her make her international debut on the tour, a fate that eluded her during the home series against South Africa in March.
Vastrakar vs Pandey and Meghna
That India do not have a definitive fast-bowling succession plan for the impending retirement of Jhulan Goswami, was a giveaway in Powar's post-England-tour debrief and before the Australia tour, when he said: "We have to have support for Jhulan Goswami. If she is consistent over a period of time, we need to find a partner who can bowl in partnership so that we can get the desired results."
In that regard, experienced quick Shikha Pandey's absence from the warm-up fixture in favour of the uncapped Meghna Singh and allrounder Pooja Vastrakar may suggest a possible injury concern around Pandey. Regardless, Vastrakar's 1 for 28 from six overs and, more crucially, her 57 at No. 6, may prove enough for her to take the second quick bowler's spot in the first ODI, with Pandey and Meghna, who returned 7-1-35-0, vying for the third quick's position.
Equally intriguing was the choice of Richa Ghosh, capped only in T20Is, as the designated wicketkeeper over Taniya Bhatia in the warm-up. While the big-hitting Ghosh showed promise with the gloves in the England T20Is with three dismissals, Taniya, the most successful wicketkeeper in the women's game since her debut in February 2018, kept wickets in the one-off Test and the ODIs against England while playing a significant lower-order knock in the Test. She was, however, left out of the T20Is on that tour as well as the T20I squad for Australia.
With Ghosh effecting four dismissals in the warm-up, including the wily stumping of Ellyse Perry off Vastrakar, Bhatia may no longer be a sure-shot inclusion for the ODIs.

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha