The third edition of the Women's T20 Challenge saw Mithali Raj's Velocity, runners-up in 2019, exit in the league stage, with first-time champions Trailblazers, led by Smriti Mandhana, defeating two-time winners Supernovas, led by Harmanpreet Kaur, in a low-scoring final on Monday in Sharjah. ESPNcricinfo highlights a few takeaways from the six-day tournament.
The case for rest days; Raj raises concerns
In a four-match competition of considerable repute, having a team to play twice within less than 24 hours is unfair to their personnel. Worse yet, cramming an afternoon game after a night match within that window puts the side at a disadvantage even before the battle between bat and ball begins. Raj's Velocity had to play matches on consecutive days last season, too, but a night game following an afternoon fixture meant they had relatively more time to recover and review their plans than their fixtures allowed this year.
Throw into the equation the intensity the format demands, the UAE heat and two-way travel between Dubai, where the squads had been staying, and Sharjah, the venue of the competition, and Velocity's below-par 47 all out batting first against Trailblazers calls for a review in the reading of that disastrous outing. Raj's statement after the game that it was "difficult for the [Velocity] girls to prepare themselves and come back" highlighted that rest days between games for all teams - which Velocity alone have not had since last year in the league stage - are a must if a level playing field were to be ensured.
Smarter scheduling, more games - better payoff
Given the T20 Challenge has been traditionally slotted in during the IPL playoffs week to ensure the interest in the former is piggybacked on by the women's competition, the BCCI opting for the same window this year for the T20 Challenge was no surprise. But after several rounds of Covid-19 tests, weeks of quarantine, arranging charter flights for players from as many as eight countries, and creating a biobubble, did it make sense to have only four games in the competition?
Not exploring an alternative window for the T20 Challenge, which could have allowed the participation of top international stars competing in the WBBL, and denying at least four Indians the opportunity to feature in the Australian competition, showed lack of considered planning in scheduling in the first place. But then to assemble a 45-member playing contingent, including 12 international recruits, and not having the three teams square off against each other at least twice, proved an exercise in underutilising resources. With no clarity yet on the expansion of the T20 Challenge into a four-team affair, or the birth of a Women's IPL, perhaps there's merit in rethinking the length of the competition.
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka recruits make a statement
Sri Lanka batter Chamari Athapaththu's 117 runs were the most by an individual at this year's T20 Challenge. Her compatriot and Supernovas team-mate, Shashikala Siriwardene, outfoxed Mandhana in the final in a superlative display of wily offspin. Bangladesh fingerspinner Salma Khatun, meanwhile, effectively sealed the final for champions Trailblazers with her spell of 4-0-18-3. And Jahanara Alam, Khatun's team-mate in the national side, demonstrated through the dismissals of set batters Athapaththu and Kaur in the tournament opener, why, much like Athapaththu's, her call-up for a second straight T20 Challenge was a well-deserved one.
Siriwardene, Athapaththu, Khatun, and Alam are seasoned campaigners with captaincy experience on the international circuit. But that this quartet outshone many of the more recognised internationals in the tournament was not because their individual talents flourished in a robust women's cricket set-up in their countries, but despite it.
Australia Women's record-breaking performances in September-October reinforced how continued investment at the grassroots can sustain a sports team's distinction over a long period. In the Covid-19 era, though, it's not just the Australian system's efficacy alone that will determine how much wider the gulf between its women and the other countries' grows, but also the attitude of the other boards, especially those of the lower-ranked subcontinental sides like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, towards their female cricketers. And the T20 Challenge outings of Khatun, Athapaththu, Siriwardene, and Alam were yet another reminder that better investment in women's cricket in the region could produce more world-class players.
Chantham's moment: My way or Thai way
Until the second over of defending champions Supernovas' chase in the final, Thailand batter Natthakan Chantham's maiden campaign in an overseas league threatened to peter out into an unremarkable one, with perhaps just an impressive slide-and-stop save in her first game against Velocity the only instance when the cameras lingered on her longer than usual.
That the Thai opener was not considered for a position higher than the No. 9 slot or sooner than the last ball of the innings in the final left her without any realistic chance to impress with the bat. But it all changed six deliveries later.
Reminiscent of Thailand's brilliant fielding throughout their maiden T20 World Cup campaign in Australia earlier this year, Chantham scurried towards a Jemimah Rodrigues' outside edge off left-arm spinner Sophie Ecclestone and threw herself into a jaw-dropping acrobatic cartwheel-like jump. Landing on her shoulder late enough to keep the ball in play inches within the third-man boundary, she pulled off a save that got Mandhana to say: "[I] haven't really seen a girl field like that [before]."
Goswami, Ecclestone ooze excellence
Barely a fortnight shy of turning 38, India veteran Jhulan Goswami, who retired from T20Is in 2018, proved age is still a long way catching up with her accuracy or spirit. The most economical bowler in the tournament, conceding at just 4.27 in her 11 overs, Goswami's disciplined medium pace set the tone for Traiblazers in all three matches, bowling superlatively in tandem in the powerplay with the No. 1-ranked T20I bowler, Ecclestone, in Trailblazers' tournament opener and the final.
So potent was their partnership on the sluggish Sharjah tracks, that Mandhana had the duo bowl five of the six powerplay overs in the final for 1 for 28 - they had bowled all first six in their first outing for 5 for 22 - after trying out the Goswami-Deepti Sharma combination in their league-stage defeat against Supernovas, who scored 50 for 0 in the powerplay. While Goswami finished the tournament with 3 for 47, 21-year-old Ecclestone's 5 for 55, the second-best tournament haul, came at an average of 11, economy rate of 4.92, and included a match-winning 4 for 9 in the first game.
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo