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IND vs ENG, Women’s Test: India shines under new alliance, problems aplenty for England

The satisfying thing about puzzles after the time it takes to find the right pieces that go together is that final step of then clicking them all into place. India’s 347-run mauling of England in the one-off Test at the D.Y. Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai would have had that quality of contentment for the spectator – a performance that saw all the necessary elements come together and make that perfect ‘click.’

Test cricket is an elite privilege in women’s cricket, limited to the big three – Australia, England and India. Old rivals England and Australia too just get a Test every odd year thanks to the Ashes. The subcontinent last saw a Test in 2014, when India beat South Africa by an innings and 34 runs. This week, the nine-year drought was quenched with an Indian win again and the biggest one in terms of runs in the women’s game.

New alliances

The bigger victory for the side is the making of a new captain-coach partnership. Veteran domestic batter Amol Muzumdar took over as head coach of the women’s team, starting with the England T20I series. While India lost the series 1-2, Muzumdar was unfazed and turned his focus to the Tests.

The format might be inconsequential in the current international scenario, with no championship points to claim or larger picture to work towards, but it gave him time with the team and an opportunity to hunt in the arena he has owned at the domestic level – red ball cricket.

“The coach’s experience came in handy during this Test,” Harmanpreet Kaur said after the win. “I did not have any red ball captaincy experience so I trusted him with key decisions like bringing Shubha Satheesh in to bat one down, or the bowling strategies. Even today, the first 40 minutes were key and he believed we should capitalise on the conditions in the morning and we did the same,” she explained.

Harmanpreet has always been an aggressive captain, unafraid to employ quirky field settings and happy to attack till the very last ball. She needed a tactician who could complement this aggression and give it a zing of depth. Muzumdar’s keen tuning to the longest format of the game helped him embellish a team that had the hunger with the right personnel.Playing Shubha was the coach’s call,” Harmanpreet revealed. “He saw how she batted at the NCA (during India’s practice camp for the England series), how she was taking control and taking the game ahead. He believed sending her one down would give us a good start. She did it the way we expected her to as well,” she added.

Muzumdar’s pre-match focus areas were fitness and fielding. The Indian team barely looked hassled as it learnt on the go and the close fields, attacking lines and frugality in conceding runs ticked all the basics needed for a simple yet devastating Test match triumph.

Spinning out of control

England’s tired presence over the two-and-a-half days of Test cricket was in stark contrast to India’s zeal and curiosity. The visitor looked exhausted physically and mentally as it looked out of ideas even before the first ball was bowled.

“We know Test cricket is quite difficult in that you might be out in the field and things can change very quickly. It is all about the mindset and having the ability to switch the mind on – with the bat or the ball or on the field – and be ready for the ball. There’s a few tired bodies but tired minds as well,” vice captain Natalie Sciver-Brunt told the media after day two. At that stage, England faced the requirement of batting at least for an entire day to have a chance to save this Test, the side’s milestone 100th in the women’s game. A little under three hours is all they could muster.

Skipper Heather Knight alluded to hostile conditions courtesy Navi Mumbai’s quintessential heat and humidity and ‘extreme spin’.

“I think the wicket probably deteriorated a bit faster than we expected. We got a few knicks that didn’t carry which can be quite soul destroying for the fast bowlers, when your best ball doesn’t carry to the slip. We then identified that the wobble ball was more effective and we tried to get as much out of that as we can. The pitch deteriorated but our main learning, especially for the seamers, was to consistently execute. Pooja (Vastrakar) was an example of that. She was tricky with her wobble ball on a good length and didn’t give us too many opportunities to score,” Knight said, during the postmortem of a rather underwhelming showing from the side.

“This is the first time we’ve bowled in a Test match in these conditions. Maybe if we had a two or three match series, we’d be able to use these lessons and get better. I guess we’re pretty philosophical on what’s happened around this Test match,” she added.

Choices and consequences

While Knight focused on execution issues on the field, one can argue their problems stemmed from the drawing board. In a region known for its turners, England’s bowling arsenal put up a four-pronged seam frontline in Kate Cross, Lauren Filer, Lauren Bell and Nat Sciver-Brunt. The entirety of spin responsibilities fell on Charlie Dean and Sophie Ecclestone, who dislocated her shoulder and had surgery three months ago. Faith remained in an underperforming Sophia Dunkley, who had a Test to forget and whose leg spin was not given an option to feature in the English resistance. One wonders if allrounder Alice Capsey, with her off spin would have been the better choice. Knight, a nifty offie herself, did not bowl.

Sophie Ecclestone of England during day two of the first test match between India Women and England Women held at the D Y Patil stadium, Navi Mumbai on the 15th December 2023.

Sophie Ecclestone of England during day two of the first test match between India Women and England Women held at the D Y Patil stadium, Navi Mumbai on the 15th December 2023. | Photo Credit: Sportzpics for BCCI

“It was a hard selection to make to have the extra bowler and lose the batter at 6 and 7. There was a chance that we would have won the toss and then that bowler would have weighed in. In the first innings, I was glad to have that extra bowler. We didn’t get as much bounce and carry as we thought we’d get. It was a quick pitch. Probably didn’t get as much as we’d thought we’d get after batting at the edge of the square where there was more pace and bounce. Hindsight is one thing, but I don’t regret that call,” Knight said.

Subcontinental nightmare

England’s helplessness does not bode well for the side given two ICC events coming up in the region – the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh in 2024 and the ODI World Cup in India in 2025. Poor footwork, inability to gauge and prepare for variations in turn should send the alarm clocks ringing back home. What also confounds is that this is an identified weakness that is only getting worse.

England was bowled out in both innings at Navi Mumbai with 13 out of 20 wickets falling to spin. Similar numbers emerged from Sri Lanka’s tour of England and from the Women’s Ashes with Ashleigh Gardner proving to be a thorn in the flesh for the English side.

England skipper Heather Knight in action on Day 2.

England skipper Heather Knight in action on Day 2. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI/THE HINDU

“I think it’s a bit of a theme for us, we want to get better. We have a big tournament in Bangladesh and we haven’t been there in forever. Spin does tend to dominate in women’s cricket in general so if we can improve that, it will give us an advantage. These conditions were actually quite extreme and we’ve not seen this kind of spin and dryness in a pitch before. In the main formats we play, we don’t get as much as this,” Knight suggested.

“Previously, our issues against spin have been about the ball not spinning and more about the outside edge and the like. These conditions are extreme and I’d be surprised if we face anything like this in anything other than a Test in India, she added.

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