Mithali Raj rues missed opportunities after India miss semi-final bus on final ball
Heavy defeats against England and NZ hurt India's run, Raj said after the loss to SA
India captain Mithali Raj conceded that they performed below expectation at this World Cup, pinning their failure to advance to the semi-finals on an inconsistent start to the competition. India lost three of their first five matches before beating Bangladesh and taking their semi-final chances to the last ball against South Africa but narrowly missed out on the knockouts.
Their last-ball loss ended a competition in which they scored the highest total - 317 for 8 against West Indies - were bowled out for one of the lowest - 134 against England - and were involved in two of the most tense matches in the group stage, against Australia and South Africa.
"There've been ups and downs," Raj said in summation at her final press conference of the event. "We did well against West Indies but we lost against England, Australia and even New Zealand. We didn't really put up a fight in those two games (England and New Zealand). Overall, we could have done better in the initial phase of the tournament."
After an authoritative opening win against Pakistan, India were dismissed for under 200 against New Zealand and were unable to string together successive wins. Like Sophie Devine, who dissected New Zealand's performance yesterday and identified a lack of awareness in key moments, Raj pointed to similar problems with India when she identified two examples where India could have pressed home an advantage against South Africa but didn't. "We could have added more runs in the death overs when we batted. With the start we got and the way we built the innings, we could have got many more runs having wickets in hand," she said. "And then the most important couple of overs where when [Chloe] Tyron came in, the asking rate was around nine and she got it to seven. That was the moment that tilted the match in their favour."
The absence of Jhulan Goswami, who was forced out of the match after picking up a side strain in training, doubtless affected India's ability to defend their score but Raj was full of praise for the death-overs' protagonist Deepti Sharma, who nearly pulled off victory. Sharma had to defend six off the last over, conceded four off her first four balls and then had Mignon du Preez caught at long-on but had overstepped. "She had a lot of clarity of where she needed to bowling the last over but somewhere these no-balls haven't been working in India's favour," Raj said.
From the sidelines, Goswami looked on, unable to hide her disappointment, fuelling speculation that she has not just played her last World Cup, but perhaps her last game for India. Raj could not confirm that but said she regretted that India couldn't give Goswami a longer run at this tournament. "I really wanted to win this game so that we could give her another game to play in the semi-finals but it didn't go our way," she said.
Similarly, there are whispers around Raj's future also doing the rounds. While she announced that the 2022 World Cup would be her last ODI tournament, she has not confirmed if or when she is stepping away. "It would not be appropriate for me to comment on that, considering the game we just played. The emotions are still there. It needs to settle down before I can have clarity on that," she said.
She did, however, indicate that changes are inevitable, especially after a World Cup. "They will be generations of playing coming and going. After every World Cup, there is always a change in the team and the dressing room. There will be fresh faces in, there will be some experienced players in, every team has to go through this process of rebuilding after the World Cup, especially the one-day World Cup, so that they prepare for the coming World Cups in another four years," she said. "We are no different. We will also go through the same transformation."
I really wanted to win this game so that we could give her [Goswami] another game to play in the semi-finals
Asked if she thought India's result would have an effect on the progression of the women's game in the country, Raj indicated that she hoped not and that the board would continue to support the development of the sport.
"The BCCI has done a great job to give us series last year against the best sides. They've done their bit of giving us preparation that would be ideal," she said. "It is disappointing for all of us but moving forward we have very talented youngsters and I am sure the coming tournaments we will have a strong side. We look forward to building and rebuilding and trying to give our best whenever we compete in the next big event.
"Every ICC event is an opportunity for the team to do well because these events are followed by everybody around the world, an opportunity for cricket lovers to look up to women cricketers to play the best standard and it's our job as players to put our best standard out there so that many young girls take up the sport. We look forward to doing our best in these events."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent