Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75
India have a "50-50" chance of beating defending champions Australia in the Women's World Cup semi-final on Thursday, an opinion the former India captain Anjum Chopra insists isn't merely the "hope" of a positive outcome. Chopra has been closely following the fortunes of Mithali Raj's team as a commentator, but concedes Australia's superior experience and pedigree will be a factor going into the clash.
Australia have won six of the 10 World Cup tournaments prior to this and hold an overwhelming 34-8 win-loss record against India in ODIs. Since the last World Cup in 2013, India have won just one of their four ODIs against Australia. In the group stages of this edition, Australia won six of their seven games while India won five.
"Yes, I think India can beat Australia," Chopra told ESPNcricinfo from London. "When I say that, I am not just being hopeful that India should be in a final. The reason I say that is, I've always felt that anytime you get into a quarter-final or a semi-final, there's always one match that as a team you need to play well together, even if they are the current world champions.
"Definitely they are a beatable side. Yes they have been world champions often, so they've seen themselves as an Australian team in this situation many more times than the Indian team. So yes, the confidence is there, they know how to come to this stage and how to conquer this stage, which will apparently be missing in the Indian line-up."
One of India's major concerns going into the game will be the sharp decline in the form of their opener Smriti Mandhana. Mandhana, who turned 21 on Tuesday, started the tournament with scores of 90 and 106*, helping the team secure wins over England and West Indies, but has subsequently been dismissed for 2, 8, 4, 3 and 13. India do have the option to promote 19-year old Deepti Sharma, a specialist opener who has been playing in the middle order, but Chopra believes such a move could only have been contemplated had Deepti been tested in the role in the group stages.
"Against an Australian line-up where Smriti as an attacking left-hander will be required to come good at the top, I don't think the Indian team will be looking at that change," she said. "As players, we have seen ourselves go in and out of form. In the last four days, the Indian team would have had the time to relax, if required, or go and hit the nets. I think four days is good enough time for any cricketer to make that turnaround. At the top, that strong partnership that India can come up with it, like they did against England, I think that will be very crucial."
While Mandhana's form has tapered off, her opening partner Punam Raut has been consistently providing solidity to the top order. Raut is, in fact, second behind captain Mithali Raj among India's leading run-getters in the tournament and made a hundred against Australia in the league stage. India will also be encouraged by the contributions of Harmanpreet Kaur and Veda Krishnamurthy, who struck half-centuries in their final game of the league phase, a must-win encounter against New Zealand.
"At this level, it is a mental game," Chopra said. "It is not just about realising that you are playing for India, it's about making your presence felt that you are an Indian player, where the world is actually watching and following you. Veda, of course, has good shots down the ground, she has the power to clear the field as well. You just have to make sure that as a player you give yourself enough time to get yourself in such a position that you can play in an attacking way. Harman, too, wasn't getting enough time out in the middle, she got it against New Zealand and she really made it count."
Although Australia are brimming with skilled players, the biggest threat to India will come from their captain, Meg Lanning. Though Lanning has missed two matches due to shoulder problems, she is still among the top run-scorers of the tournament. In fact, she made a serene, unbeaten 76 to guide her team to a comfortable win in their league encounter against India. Chopra reckons while Lanning is a big thorn in India's flesh, they have to be wary of the threat from other players, too.
"She is a world-class batter, there is no doubt about her ability to lead the team," Chopra said. "She has been a prolific run-getter for Australia, someone you as a spectator would like to pay money to watch. She is so good, playing front foot or back foot, fast-bowling or spin, she provides class to her batting. But I think a very important factor here is also Ellyse Perry. She's been batting at No. 3 or 4 for Australia. Remember the partnerships she's been stitching together with Lanning or whoever else she has been batting with."
India's bowling tactics for this make-or-break encounter will also be carefully watched. India's spin bowlers have taken 36 wickets in the tournament so far, while the seamers have taken just 13. Considering their area of strength, could India contemplate opening their attack with an off-spinner, especially as Australia's opening pair of Nicole Bolton and Beth Mooney are both left-handed?
Chopra isn't sold on the idea and says any strategy India employ will rely heavily on how well they do with the bat, if they win the toss and take first strike.
"All these tactics will come into play if the Indian team is able to put up a good score in excess of 250-260 on the board and then come out defending it," she said. "I am not a big fan of bowling the second over in English conditions with a spinner, no matter what the wicket is like. I still feel in these conditions the first few overs should be bowled by the quicks. In women's cricket, only one ball is used throughout the innings, so the shine of the ball can only be utilised in those initial overs, not later."
If India do get past Australia, it will be their second entry into a World Cup final. Chopra was a member of the team that reached the final in 2005, losing to Australia by 98 runs in Centurion. After a lifetime in the game, including an international career spanning 17 years, she is enthused by the positive vibes around women's cricket at the moment and confesses to being pleasantly surprised at the scale of interest.
"It is wonderful to see the response back home," she said. "I have to confess I never expected it. I knew it would be a very big coverage before the start of the World Cup or before the build-up but the way the response has come about, I think it is phenomenal. The reason is the Indian team is winning and also that the men aren't playing a series presently! Even the men's cricketers, their support coming in the form of tweets, with encouraging words to the players, it has been phenomenal."