Where will Harmanpreet bat? And what is Deepti's role now?

India play ODIs for the first since Mithali Raj's retirement, and there might be some changes in the way they apporoach the format now

S Sudarshanan
Harmanpreet Kaur has batted 48 times at No. 4 in ODIs, including when she hit the iconic 171* against Australia in the 2017 World Cup  •  Sri Lanka Cricket

Harmanpreet Kaur has batted 48 times at No. 4 in ODIs, including when she hit the iconic 171* against Australia in the 2017 World Cup  •  Sri Lanka Cricket

After India won the T20I series 2-1 in Sri Lanka, it's time for the ODIs, starting Friday. This is the first ODI engagement for India after Mithali Raj retired, with Jhulan Goswami's future looking uncertain. This is also the first time India play ODI cricket after a league-stage exit at the World Cup earlier this year. Here are some questions they will look to answer over the course of the three-match series.
Where will Harmanpreet bat?
Harmanpreet Kaur has taken over the ODI captaincy. But where will she bat?
When Raj occupied the No. 4 spot, Harmanpreet followed her. Only twice in the last two years has she batted at No. 4 in ODIs: once against South Africa at home in 2021, when she had to retire injured, and then against New Zealand earlier this year, when her 63 coupled with Raj's unbeaten 54 helped India score their only win in the five-match ODI series.
Overall, Harmanpreet has batted at No. 5 on 45 occasions, and averages 30.97 with a strike rate of 71.50. However, she has batted 48 times at No. 4, too, where she has 1618 runs at an average of 40.45 and a strike rate of 70.22. Notably, her monumental 171 not out against Australia in 2017 had also come from No. 4.
With Harmanpreet now the senior-most batter in the team, expect her to bat at No. 4 and try to get her eye in before unleashing the big shots.
Who will occupy the other middle-order spots?
Jemimah Rodrigues wasn't included in India's ODI squad for the Sri Lanka tour despite a spot going vacant following Raj's retirement.
In her absence, India have options in Yastika Bhatia, Harleen Deol, who can also chip in with some overs of legspin, and S Meghana, the reserve opener in the World Cup squad. There is also Deepti Sharma, but more on her later.
Meghana finished as the leading run-scorer with 388 runs in the last domestic one-day competition, with her side Railways crowned champions. Also, an impressive strike rate in excess of 100 helped her get a national call-up ahead of the World Cup earlier this year.
However, though she is used to opening for Railways, the presence of incumbents Smriti Mandhana and Shafali Verma forces her to bat either at No. 3 or in the middle order. In the T20Is against Sri Lanka, India used Meghana at No. 3, which suggests that that could be her role in ODIs too.
But, what about Bhatia? She hit 225 runs at an average of 75 and a strike rate of a shade under 100 in the same domestic competition as Meghana while batting at No. 3. Nine of her 13 ODI innings have also come in that position.
So it could become a three-way jostle for two middle-order spots, considering Mandhana and Verma are at the top, Harmanpreet is likely at No. 4, and Deepti and Richa Ghosh, the first-choice wicketkeeper, are all part of the top seven.
What will Deepti's role be?
Perhaps no other batter in the squad has been moved up and down the order as much as Deepti. She has batted at all positions from No. 3 to No. 9 in the last two years. In fact, she is not a stranger to opening the batting either, having played 13 times in that role in ODIs, including when she hit a career-best 188 against Ireland in 2017.
After Raj's retirement, there are three different roles India might have in mind for Deepti: an accumulator at the top, a finisher, and a lower-middle order bat who can bowl.
Her bowling effectiveness is on the wane, though, with a recent rise in economy rate and average. Deepti got 64 wickets at an average of 27.81 and an economy rate of 3.84 from her debut in 2014 until the end of 2019; but since 2020, her 17 wickets have come at an average of close to 47, and her economy rate has shot up to 5.32.
That she has kept her place in the side despite the emergence of Sneh Rana is mainly down to her ability to bowl at all stages of the match coupled with the fact that she is a utility player. But in the absence of Rana, who is not in Sri Lanka, how Deepti shapes up could decide how India fare in the series.
Make or break for Poonam?
Poonam Yadav's inability to pick up wickets consistently or contain the runs in the last two years have hurt India. Her loop and dip have had batters in a tangle in the past. However, with the batters now figuring her out and using the back foot to counter her, Poonam's bowling average and strike rate have taken a battering since 2021.
That led to her being dropped from the XI in favour of newcomer Prathyusha Challuru at home against South Africa last year. Poonam is not the first-choice in T20Is as well, with India preferring Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Radha Yadav over her.
Without Ekta Bisht, Poonam is one of the three spinners - including Deepti - in the squad, with the ODIs against Sri Lanka potentially deciding her future in the team.
The focus this season will increasingly be on T20Is given the Commonwealth Games and the T20 World Cup early next year, and solid performances by the new players, even in the ODIs, could give the Indian management a happy headache.

S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo