Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha
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Since the 2017 ODI World Cup, where India finished runners-up, only twice in 14 innings have they scored 250 or more batting first. Twelve months out from the next 50-over World Cup, and in their first series since returning to international cricket after a 364-day gap, they have returned 177 and 248 when trying to set a target. The first of those - in the series opener against South Africa - exposed the batting unit, and the team itself, as one that was a long way from finding their "rhythm". On Friday, they were still not quite a 250 side, something they will have to resolve in the lead-up to the 2022 ODI World Cup in New Zealand.
That said, India fared far better in their second dig at batting first at the Ekana International Stadium. A second straight fifty from No. 3 Punam Raut and 36s from their Nos. 4, 5, and 6 - Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur, and Deepti Sharma - took India to 248 in the third ODI. It matches Raj's expectations from her side, but the six-run DLS-determined defeat showed how India had squandered the momentum they had generated over three fairly brisk 60-plus stands.
"When the middle order did get the start, we should have stretched that partnership a little more, I felt," Raj told Anjum Chopra at the post-match interview. "Even when I got out, Punam and Harman's partnership, and then Deepti's partnership - each time I thought, 'Okay, you know, I think this partnership is going to stay till the end'. But we lost wickets. That's where we fell 20-30 runs short. But, overall, losing the first wicket [Jemimah Rodrigues] in the first over and still coming back to develop partnerships, I think the top order played well. But we could have done better in the batting innings."
The narrow margin of defeat also threw focus, again, on the non-selection of the big-hitting 17-year-old T20I opener Shafali Verma. Do India have a batter in their 50-over mix who can ramp up the scoring rate at will? Verma, in almost singlehandedly steering India to the 2020 T20 World final around this time last year, had proven how good a tone-setter she could be.
While the new selection committee, appointed in September last year, hasn't yet publicly elaborated on their selection calls, Raj, ahead of the first ODI, had called for "patience" regarding Verma's place in India's ODI "scheme of things". With Kaur the only realistic bet for any end-overs acceleration in the current line-up, her dismissal in the 45th over for a 46-ball 36 in the third ODI and India thereafter managing just 27 off the last 20 balls, might reignite discussions about Verma.
"We are looking at competing with the best - like the Australia and the England sides, so clearly we are looking at 270-plus," Raj said when asked about the team's likely approach in the last ten overs in the event of Kaur not being around to hit out. "Having said that, this is our third game after a long gap and we are one of those countries who started cricket quite late [after the pandemic-enforced break] and other teams have already played a couple of series.
"We need to have some game time, but at the same time, we are also trying to work on the players to build a sort of game plan for future series and those will become important in terms of how we are going to plan for the World Cup and what are the things we need to work on. It's going to be a process, yes, and we have started on it. I wouldn't say, 'yes, it's our first series, and we are aiming at 200', because clearly the girls need some outing out there.
"We definitely need to have batters playing the last ten overs because obviously the sort of game a batter has, the low (order batters) or tail-enders may not. It's important we have the batters playing the last ten overs and a settled batter will be very, very helpful in those times. We do have players like Harman and Deepti; it's just a matter of a few innings. They will come good in those death overs.
Then there's the concern over dots accumulated. India on Friday didn't score off 175 deliveries (nearly 59% of the allotted tally), while South Africa had 165 in 46.3 overs. Raj said while lessening the dot-ball percentage largely required an individual approach, much of the team's overall strike rate ran the risk of taking a hit owing to an early dismissal.
"In our ODI side, we have a batting order that is experienced. I wouldn't call it an inexperienced or young order. But, yes, it [dot-ball percentage] is something we all work on. But, I think, it's got more to do with how individual players are able to work on it, and a lot more depends on when the batters walk in. If you're losing a wicket in the first over itself, clearly you wouldn't be looking at getting six runs per over. You need to work on your partnerships and that might result in a few dot balls and lower strike rate.
"But again, there are batters who try to make up for that when they develop a partnership. Usually, it's made up in the latter part of the innings. But, again, it's got more to do with how you play according to the situation, rather than working on the strike rate because clearly, we are not playing the T20 format. It's more important how you utilise the momentum generated in the beginning or if there is a fall of wicket how you develop a partnership and then continue, stretch that. That's what we, as batters, work on in the one-day squad."