At the pre-departure press conference in Mumbai, Mithali Raj was asked about India being the only team in the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 with three fast bowlers in the squad, even though India’s plan has been about putting runs on the board and then allowing the spinners to take control.
Wins against England, West Indies (where it bowled first), Pakistan and Sri Lanka vindicated that approach. South Africa, though, cracked the code and posted 273 for 9 after being asked to bat first. Australia too read the spinners well in the league game and chased down 227 easily, though Rajeshwari Gayakwad’s five-wicket haul against New Zealand helped India to a 186-run win and took it to the semi-finals in Derby on Thursday. But, with Australia, which uses its feet against slower bowlers well, the spinners needed support.
In a chase of 227 in the league game against India, Nicole Bolton and Beth Mooney had put on an opening stand of 62 in 15.4 overs. It negated the effect of the new ball before Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry got down to work. In that game, Deepti Sharma, the off-spinner, had opened the bowling from one end. Raj was not going to commit the same error again.
After Harmanpreet Kaur’s 115-ball 171 not out took India to 281 for 4 in a rain-affected, 42-overs-a-side game, Jhulan Goswami and Shikha Pandey were given the mandate to build dot-ball pressure and not allow the openers to get off to a big start.
They stuck to bowling on one side of wicket and with scoreboard pressure very much there, Mooney, lucky to have survived an lbw appeal after India did not review, was the first to fall, bowled off a delivery by Pandey.
The moment of the game, however, came in the fifth over, when Goswami bowled Lanning for a duck. Seeing the ball coming in, Lanning prepared to play it with a slightly closed bat face only for it to move just enough to take off stump – Ian Bishop, on air, called it the ball of the tournament.
It was Lanning’s first duck in close to three years, and she remained one short of the 3000-run landmark.
“On this wicket there was hardly any movement, it looked like a very good batting track, for bowlers you had to keep looking at one side of the track, bowling in one good area, I was hitting the ball early and trying to get in good shape and hitting the ball in the right area,” said Goswami, who is now India’s most successful bowler in World Cups with 33 scalps, having gone past Diana Edulji’s 31, when asked about the Lanning dismissal.
“There was a little bit of late movement there so that was our plan, don’t give her too much room because she is very good square of the wicket, so I tried to bowl stump-to-stump. That was our plan and it worked so we are happy all the plans worked at the right time.”
To understand the significance of that moment, it is important to delve a bit into numbers. Lanning is the only batter with 10 or more centuries in One-Day Internationals, she averages 54.52, and her strike rate is 95.97. Her average in successful chases goes up to 84.04, and no one has scored more runs than her 1765 while batting second in winning games in the history of ODIs. In this tournament, she had scored an unbeaten 152 in a chase of 258 against Sri Lanka.
The value of Lanning’s early dismissal became even more evident when Ellyse Perry and Elyse Villani hit 15 fours, mostly off the spinners, in their fourth-wicket stand of 105 runs. With the spinners being expensive, it was the first 32 balls of the innings where Goswami and Pandey did not concede a single boundary that proved decisive.
“We knew that it was important for us to get that initial breakthrough because the openers have always given them the start. For us it was really important to get those two early wickets,” agreed Raj afterwards. “Of course, they lost the opener very early as well as Meg Lanning’s wicket was the turning point I think because huge runs are scored by openers, Meg Lanning and Perry. Once they were three wickets down, it was always going to be very difficult for them to chase 280.
“Meg Lanning is a world-class player and I would not take any credit away from her. But when you are chasing 280, there is always pressure,” continued Raj. “No matter how big a player you are and how many runs you have scored, there is always a pressure of chasing a big total. And it is imperative that the team would be depending more on the openers to get a good start, which they didn’t get. So, when she walked in, as a player I could understand that she was under immense pressure. It was important to get her wicket in early stages.”
In a game where 526 runs were scored in 82.1 overs, it was Pandey’s economy of 2.83 and Goswami’s two wickets that proved crucial. While Pandey has been consistent since returning to the team for the South Africa game, Goswami has taken her bowling to new levels in the last two encounters. A Goswami in rhythm is a good sign for India ahead of the final at Lord’s on Sunday July 23.
“She has definitely worked on her bowling because from the first game to the Sri Lanka game and New Zealand game she was getting better in the nets,” said Raj of her long-time colleague. “It’s just a matter of time; you get a couple of good spells and you get the confidence.”