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India captain Mithali Raj wants her batting line-up, especially the top order, to dig their heels in and "play according to the situation" in the upcoming ODI World Cup, instead of channeling their focus "entirely" on strike rate. And, when the need arises - which, in India's case, is often, going by their up-and-down performances with the bat since the 2017 World Cup - they must take the responsibility to "get your team out of the hole too".
India have been trying to score 250-plus totals on a consistent basis and, according to Raj, this is the blueprint by which they can achieve it. To further reinforce the point, she cited the example of Beth Mooney and her epic 125 not out last year where she started off circumspect, risking a low strike rate for prolonged periods of time, before hitting top gear.
"I think too much importance isn't given to strike rate by you all?" Raj asked in response to a question on India's takeaways regarding dot-ball percentage and boundary rates from the Australia tour, where they narrowly lost the ODI series 2-1. "Because it is always spoken [of] when it comes to batting or putting up big totals.
'I just wanted to know if you all only follow the strike rates of the India players or the players from the other teams, because if you might give me an opportunity to enlighten [you], the Australia [ODI] series itself, the game that Australia won, the decider, if you've seen Beth Mooney, who scored her 50 in 80-odd balls, but she went on to play a match-winning innings for the team.
"So, as for me, I believe that cricket is a game played on situations on the ground. And yes, it is important that we keep that in mind that we need to have a healthy strike rate. But at the end of the day, it's how our batting unit revolves and [what] the depth of the batting unit in our team [is].
"So yes, when we have to score 250-270, we need to have a healthy strike rate, but having said that, we will not only entirely focus on strike rate, it's important to play an innings to win and build partnerships, and that happens, not because of strike rate but because you apply and play according to the situation on the ground. Sometimes you have to play fast, but sometimes you have to play to get your team out of the hole too."
India, who were runners-up in the 2005 and 2017 tournaments, are looking to win their first world title in New Zealand in March-April.
In a manner reminiscent of her call to action to India openers Smriti Mandhana, especially, and Shafali Verma after the visitors' heavy defeat in the opening ODI against Australia in Mackay during the 2021 tour, Raj reiterated the need for the top order, which also includes the rookie Yastika Bhatia at No. 3, to stitch together sizeable partnerships if they are to stand a chance of crossing the 250-run mark in the World Cup.
"Firstly, I think if we have to visit the 2017 World Cup where the team has done well, where the team has put on a score of 250-270 is because there's at least one top-order bat who plays through the innings and the rest of them revolve around it. So it's important that the top order - one of them - takes the responsibility of playing through the innings and there has to be a partnership or two of 50, so that you know if we get to play more, the top order contributes. I think that way we would be able to score 250-270. It is very rarely that middle order or the lower middle order scores the bulk of the runs, so it's important that as a batting unit, all of us take the responsibility of playing our roles."
Though India lost the points-based multi-format series against Australia, they made headway on several fronts. They posted back-to-back 250-plus totals, in the second and third ODIs, sealing their highest successful chase, of 265, in the latter. Before their 274 for 7 in September, India only had three 250-plus totals in 19 innings batting first.
There were individual successes as well. Mandhana, India's leading ODI run-getter since the last World Cup, made her highest score (86) in 16 innings and five series. Debutant wicketkeeper-batter Richa Ghosh injected a quick-scoring element in the middle order. And in Yastika, India unearthed a solid one-down option, allowing Raj, to slot herself in at No. 4, a position she is expected to retain.
Throughout her 23-year international career, the onus has often fallen on Raj to play the anchor and rebuild an innings, and while she still has the skills to do that, her strike rate does end up as a point of debate. It also doesn't help that India's second-most experienced batter and vice-captain, Harmanpreet Kaur, has struck only three fifties in 28 innings since her epochal 171 not out in the semi-final of the 2017 World Cup.
"I think it's important you back your players and that's what we do on this team," head coach Ramesh Powar said when asked about Kaur's ODI form. "Once you are selected in this team, we look for present and future, what you have done behind. You have to take confidence out of it or you learn out of it and move forward. As far as Harman is concerned, she just came out of the WBBL as the Player of the Tournament. So, currently she's in good form and it's up to her to capitalise those good days into best days in the World Cup."