Harmanpreet Kaur, the India ODI vice-captain, has admitted that the lack of any opportunities to "spend some time in the field" as "a unit" since the T20 World Cup in March last year, especially in the lead-up to the South Africa series, contributed to the eight-wicket hiding they got from the opposition in the series opener in Lucknow on Sunday. Captain Mithali Raj, who on match eve had said the Indian squad hadn't been feeling "rusty" going into their first assignment in a year, too, stressed on the dearth of "game time" as a cause of their defeat.
"We didn't get any international cricket for a year and during that time we played only three IPL (Women's T20 Challenge) games [in November]. Apart from that we didn't get much time where we can work as a unit," Kaur, who became the first India Women's batter to appear in 100 ODIs and as many T20Is, said at a press conference after the match. "When you play any format, as a team you need to spend some time in the field and get ready for a series. But we are one of the sides who like to learn from their mistakes and I hope we learn from our mistakes and try to improve ourselves in the next game.
"Over the past few years we had created a rhythm but [we are playing] after a long time. To create that rhythm again we would definitely need some time and from the next game we'd do what we, as a unit, want to do."
Kaur echoed Raj, who, in her post-match chat with broadcaster Anjum Chopra, acknowledged the importance of game time in developing confidence going into a series. "It seems like the batters were in good form," Raj said. "[A] Few of them got starts but couldn't convert. The bowlers need to be more consistent with lines and lengths, maybe they weren't consistent because they're coming back after a long break. A lot goes into game time. If you play games, it shows in your confidence."
Kaur admitted that after South Africa opted to bowl, India's batters who got starts "threw our wickets away". Smriti Mandhana began with a flurry of fours early into the innings when her opening partner Jemimah Rodrigues struggled for timing and placement. Mandhana's fluent knock, however, didn't last long as she bottom-edged a wide, away-going Ayabonga Khaka delivery to wicketkeeper Trisha Chetty for 14 off 20. Rodrigues followed suit, an athletic diving catch from Lizelle Lee sending her back for an 11-ball 1. First-drop Punam Raut then got out on a 29-ball 10, hurriedly pulling Ismail to Khaka at fine leg.
"We didn't try much in our batting combination because we wanted to go in with the same [opening] combination we fielded one year ago, when we last played ODIs [in November 2019]," Kaur said when asked about the opening pair. "Punam at the time was also batting one-down. But, unfortunately, we didn't get a partnership going [at the top] today."
Raj top-scored for India, keeping the innings from unravelling with a gritty 54th ODI half-century at No. 4, with Kaur joining her when India were 40 for 3 in the 14th over. The pair strung a 62-run stand off 72 balls, but Kaur, who completed 12 years in international cricket on the day, fell for 40 after picking out Ismail at long-off while trying to keep up her brisk hitting.
No. 6 Deepti Sharma too got her eyes in, scoring 27 off 46 balls on what appeared to be a good batting strip, but got out playing a sweep. From 155 for 6 in the 40th over, they could only crawl to 177 for 9 in the face of a disciplined showing from the South African bowling and fielding units.
"Nowadays everybody is looking for good totals," Kaur said about India's scarce scores in the region of 240-250 since 2017. Raj, on match eve, had touched upon that if conditions at the Ekana Stadium were conducive to batting, the hosts would aim for a similar total in the series when batting first.
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha