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'The top order has to fire' - India think-tank wants more from batters at the top

Mithali Raj and batting coach Shiv Sunder Das say as much after failed chase against New Zealand; Das also explains thinking behind dropping Shafali Verma

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
Yastika Bhatia plays one to the off side, New Zealand vs India, Women's World Cup 2022, Hamilton, March 10, 2022

Yastika Bhatia just could not get going against a spot-on New Zealand  •  ICC via Getty Images

India captain Mithali Raj and batting coach Shiv Sunder Das have pointed to a need for better returns from their top order if they are to "go deep" in the 2022 ODI World Cup. Speaking after India's botched chase against New Zealand in Hamilton, Das said he believes India can achieve this, given their "batting firepower".
"We thought it was chaseable but provided we had the top order going," Raj said at her post-match interview after India, chasing 261, were bowled out for 198 in the 47th over. "But back-to-back wickets put a lot of pressure because we didn't have batter who can take it deep."
India's 62-run defeat was the second time their weaknesses as a batting unit were exposed. In their opening win against Pakistan in Mount Maunganui on Sunday, lower-order cameos from Sneh Rana and Pooja Vastrakar bailed India out. Against a tactically dominant New Zealand, No. 5 Harmanpreet Kaur's 71 off 63 seemed an exercise in futility as the required run rate swelled to over seven by the 20th-over mark. To make matters worse, the opposition kept chipping away with intermittent strikes.
In both matches, India's powerplay scoring was a concern. They made 33 for 1 against Pakistan and even fewer against New Zealand: 26 for 2, their lowest since 2017 across 17 ODIs where overs were not reduced. "The top order has to fire," Das said after the match. "We have the batting firepower to go deep in the tournament."
Tweaking the make-up of their top three didn't significantly improve their overall performance. World Cup debutant Yastika Bhatia came in for the run-parched Shafali Verma but even then India were scratchy up top.
"She got a fair chance for the last seven-eight games and we thought we could [give her] a bit of break," Das said, when asked about Verma's exclusion. "She is a talented batter and I hope in this break she gets going and hopefully she comes back stronger in the [next] few games."
The inclusion of Bhatia, who hadn't opened in ODIs before, and a reluctance to promote any right-handers up to partner Mandhana meant India stacked three left-handers in their top order, with Deepti Sharma retaining her No. 3 spot.
"Looking at the top order, once we get going in the first 10-15 overs, we can put up a good score on the board," Das said, when asked about the lack of variety in the top three. "If you see our top order, I think it's an experienced top order. With Smriti batting in the top order, we thought we could get some runs from the top order, but maybe we have to think about this decision in the next game."
Bhatia has been one of India's better performers with the bat leading up to the World Cup, and scored 58 and 42 in the tournament's warm-ups. But she struggled to get going in the face of tight fields and tighter lines from the in-sync New Zealand. Having scratched her way to 28 off 58, a leading edge off Lea Tahuhu caused Bhatia's undoing in the 20th over.
"You have to give credit to the New Zealand bowlers [for] the way they bowled to her," Das said. "What we have seen in the practice matches and the [earlier] matches, she is a really good bat and she has the strokes. As top-order batsman, as an opener, she did well and we thought like, no, she would come good. She has played only one game [in the World Cup]. I hope she comes good in the next matches."
India's struggle wasn't limited to just the quicks, who shared seven wickets among themselves, with Tahuhu claiming 10-2-17-3. Against offspinner Frances Mackay, who gave away just seven runs from her four overs in the powerplay, they seemed far from comfortable rotating the strike, let alone scoring boundaries. And when the in-form wristspinning allrounder Amelia Kerr joined the party in the 26th over, India's struggle to read her variations was evident.
"We played a whole series against New Zealand and picked up a few variations of her during the matches and we saw a lot of reviews," Das said about Kerr's googly, which accounted for Richa Ghosh - a first-ball duck - and tested several others. "I think it's just a matter of picking the right line and right length. In the few games we played [against New Zealand], she bowled really well to our batters."
Thursday's result meant India, runners-up at the 2017 ODI World Cup, slumped to the fifth spot on a closely contested table. Undefeated Australia, New Zealand - who now have two wins from three matches - West Indies and South Africa are ahead of them. India play their next game on Saturday, against West Indies, while New Zealand lock horns in a trans-Tasman face-off, against Australia, on Sunday.

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha