India respond to captain Raj's rallying call
After their loss to Australia, the remarks of two of India's veterans resonated long after they had been made.
"If I had two players who were the highest wicket-taker and highest run-scorer, I would be proud to have them," Mithali Raj, the captain, said at the post-match press conference. "But as a player, I would want to see to it that I support them equally when required. I feel Veda [Krishnamurthy], Harman [Harmanpreet Kaur], Shikha Pandey, who's been with the team for a while, need to contribute in a way that it complements the team."
On the eve of their next match, a must-win against New Zealand, Jhulan Goswami echoed Raj in emphasising the need for teamwork. "For me, as a senior player, it's important to take responsibility and take wickets up front," she said. "The important thing is rhythm, bowling, support from the other end, from fielders. Everything matters."
When India turned up at the County Ground in Derby, where they had won all three of their matches, it seemed as though all the players Raj had called out had memorised and rehearsed their roles several times. Leading the charge of a reinvigorated outfit was Raj herself, who waltzed to her first century against a top-three ODI team, as India routed New Zealand by 186 runs to march into the semi-final of an ICC event after seven years.
Raj's hundred, her second in a World Cup, was her first since 2014. Though she had bailed India out on occasions past with similar tons, the timeliness of the knock, by Raj's own admission, could barely be undervalued.
"Considering the situation the team was in, maybe it is one of my best innings," she said. "When I walked in today, it was important for me to score runs as usual, but I knew that the wicket was good. There was a lot of pressure because we had lost two wickets early in the innings. But I think it was important for me also to play with a bit of freedom knowing the fact that it can go either way. I've not planned the innings, but in all honesty, I've enjoyed being in the middle and getting runs."
For all the flak Raj and her team had drawn for their inability to rotate strike before their last league match, Raj laid down the marker with her 123-ball knock. She scored close to 60% of her runs - 65 out of 109 - through non-boundaries, contributing to her team's tally of 91 singles, 18 twos and three threes. Explaining the urgency in running between the wickets, Raj said, "[It is] something we've always emphasised on from the beginning of the tournament. Today, we tried to push those runs because it was important to put pressure on the New Zealand side."
India's win was only their second over New Zealand in 12 meetings in the World Cup. The first of those had come in 2005, when Krishnamurthy was a 13-year-old, into her first year of training at the Karnataka Institute of Cricket. Gayakwad was probably hurling javelins or discus at the Ambedkar Ground in Bijapur. Kaur had only started finding her way around age-group cricket in Punjab, and Shikha was likely calculating the length of a parabolic arc at high school rather than that of her inswingers. From the current squad, only Raj and Goswami were a part of the team that won in 2005.
Twelve years on, Goswami found an unerring deputy in Shikha, as both swung the ball at will, and sniped out the New Zealand openers, Suzie Bates and Rachel Priest, in the first three overs. In keeping New Zealand to just 26 without having conceded a single extra, they lent credence to Raj's persistence with seamers through the entire Powerplay - the first such instance in seven league matches.
Raj's concerted efforts at atoning for her defensive captaincy in five of India's last six games took the form of a seven-two offside field. It cut the drive from the armoury of Amy Satterthwaite, who top scored with 26. The wide first slip, though alternated between Krishnamurthy and Goswami, stayed through the 25.3 overs that it took India's bowlers to rip through New Zealand. Throughout, Raj ensured the odd extra close-in fielder - a short cover or a second slip - kept the batsmen company.
Having felt the absence of a left-arm spinner who can flight, dip and rip the ball, unlike the flatter and round-arm Ekta Bisht, against Australia, Raj took a gamble and brought in Rajeshwari Gayakwad in place of her spin spearhead. And it paid off. "Ekta is definitely an experienced spinner, but when you need to slow down a bit, she has to work on her bowling especially when the batters are charging at her," Raj said. "It happens sometimes when a bowler is not able to perform their skill, it reflects in their fielding as well. So we thought of giving her a break, so that when she gets the next opportunity, she is in a better frame of mind to perform.
"Rajeshwari is someone who can turn the ball, who is a little slow," Raj said. That may have been as much a reason for her inclusion as her three four-wicket hauls and a three-for in nine previous ODI innings. If career-best returns of 5 for 15 are any validation of a captain's choice, Gayakwad had done enough to retain a place in Thursday's semi-final.
Raj showed prudence in the batting line-up, too, sticking to her regular No. 3 spot, having dropped down a position following the tournament opener against England. The promotion paid off, through a fifty and a century in consecutive games.
"When we are sending Deepti [Sharma] in, it's to stabilise. But we just didn't want stabilisation there but also put runs on the board. That's why the management decided that I can push myself up to No. 3, so that the middle order can come into a picture when they are actually required to play the spinners rather than come in to face the new ball."
Raj's promotion, coupled with the early loss of the openers, also gave Harmanpreet, who had been shunted up and down the order and had had few balls to face, ample time to get her eye in. It translated into her first half-century in 17 innings, and her most substantial knock since the run-a-ball unbeaten 41 that gave India the World Cup Qualifier title in February. Raj acknowledged that even though Harmanpreet "was expected to score", her 60-run knock turned out to be an "important" one.
Harmanpreet's scores do not reflect the multiple injuries she's wrestled with in the recent past. In the Qualifier final, she fought a ligament tear in her right wrist, sustained during the Women's Big Bash League, to steer India to victory. On June 29, only into her second match this World Cup, she dislocated the ring finger of her left hand, but has both batted and bowled in subsequent games. While the wrist injury became lost in the magnificence of the bat-hurling celebrations in Colombo, the latter injury caught the eye on Saturday, when in the 26th over, her top hand came off immediately after playing a flick, and she knelt down, wincing in pain.
But, that Harmanpreet has grown as much in stature - she is the vice-captain of the side, leads them in T20Is, and is the first women's player from India to have bagged a contract in foreign T20 leagues - as in her skills was evident in what ensued after the physio tended to her. She muscled four powerful fours to zoom from 28 off 54 balls to 60 off 90 and anchor the 132-run third-wicket stand with her captain. She followed that effort up with a consummate fielding performance at cover, catching and making diving stops to complement the efficiency of the bowlers. Harmanpreet had done just about enough to honour Goswami and Raj's call for support by the time she walked off the field, with a strained right shoulder, three overs prior to the end of the game.
Raj pointed out that the team was also banking on "Veda to score that crucial knock in the last ten overs because we still hadn't touched 200 by then". Krishnamurthy walked in with the score on 154 for 4 in the 37th over, and began tentatively, mistiming sweeps, spooning length balls with ugly slogs, before bringing out her belligerence in the final Powerplay. "I thought it's better to go and hit out rather than hang in there and play few shots later on," Krishnamurthy said, after her 45-ball 70 had powered India to 265, their highest total against New Zealand.
Vanitha VR, a childhood friend and India team-mate, who has seen Krishnamurthy evolve into a "fearless" cricketer, said it would be a surprise if Krishnamurthy had played otherwise. "Veda likes to be positive from the outset," she said. "She doesn't think twice before going for an attacking shot. She's always had those innovations but she's matured into a more informed cricketer. She is aware of her role in the lower-middle order, and knows that the team needs her to go at a steady rate." Raj, who also captains Krishnamurthy in the Railways and Central Zone teams, described Krishnamurthy's end-overs blitz as being important for her own confidence, besides benefitting the team "hugely".
It is appropriate that the most valuable innings of Krishnamurthy's career came at Derby, where six years ago, she struck a near run-a-ball fifty as an 18-year-old. It came against the side - England - India had beaten to get their World Cup campaign underway, also in Derby.
Derby is where it started for India, Derby is where it fittingly began anew for them.
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo