Mithali Raj set to return for must-win game

For a batting line-up, relying too much on one player can become a way of inflicting self-harm. On Monday, this showed most tellingly when an unwell Mithali Raj sat on the sidelines and watched India’s top six batsmen squander away starts. Even a gritty lower-order fightback proved insufficient to prevent Australia from going 1-0 up in the ODI leg of their tour.

Raj’s team-mates, however, will derive much confidence from her participation in catching drills and a fairly long hit in the nets on the eve of Thursday’s second ODI, a must-win game to keep the three-match series alive. “I’m on a recovery path. I’m definitely better than what I was,” Raj, the ODI captain, said at the pre-game press conference on Wednesday, minutes after she wrapped up her training session at the Reliance Stadium in Baroda.

The statement and her demeanour during training suggested she is most likely returning to the starting XI and taking back the captaincy from her deputy Harmanpreet Kaur. This was also her first media appearance during the series, as a bout of fever had forced her to depart from training early on Sunday.

On Monday, the cavalier shot selection that cost openers Punam Raut and Punam Raut and Smriti Mandhana their wickets after they had got their eye in was a reminder of the inconsistency that runs through India’s line-up, and of how much it missed Raj’s solidity. For her part, Raj has faith in the ability of her team-mates to pull the team through even when she isn’t around.

“Consistency I can’t say, but, yes, this team, without me, is still good enough,” Raj said. “It’s just that they need to believe in themselves as much as I believe in them that they are capable of scoring runs.”

After their previous defeat to Australia in the group stage of last year’s World Cup, Raj had lamented the other senior batsmen’s failure to take responsibility in clutch situations. In the recent past, too, amid an otherwise prolific run during the South Africa tour, India posted below-par totals and went on to lose when Raj was dismissed for single-digit scores in the third ODI and the third T20I.

“Everything is a process, and it’s gradual. Overnight a team doesn’t become bad, or become the best,” Raj said when asked what the future holds for the Indian side without herself and Jhulan Goswami, who has been sidelined from the series with a heel injury.

“There’s a certain period of time the team needs to come into a position. It is much better than what it was earlier. I’m sure you’d agree with that: none of top five stayed [in the first ODI] and yet we reached 200. There is still time for these girls to come into a position where they can hold the responsibility of the team on their shoulder.”

While acknowledging the need for setting “bigger targets” to stand a chance against a reinvigorated Australian team, and calling for “more discipline from the spinners”, Raj suggested that adapting to a switch between formats – India are coming off a five-match T20I series in South Africa – may have contributed to the batsmen’s inability to drop anchor when needed. “We’re coming from the T20 format, the last match we played was in the T20 format, so maybe we’ll see a different batting unit tomorrow.”

Raj also heaped praise on 18-year-old allrounder Pooja Vastrakar and wicketkeeper-batsman Sushma Verma for their contributions in an area that has time and again cost India matches: their lower-order batting.

“For the last couple of years, I wanted the lower middle order to contribute with some runs. I’m happy to see she [Vastrakar] stepped up and Sushma again to get the team to the respectable total of 200. It’s just that they probably won’t get to bat every match, but whenever they do, they contribute. It gives them more confidence as players.

The World Cup final was one example of India’s lower-order failure costing them a match they could, and probably should, have won. Chasing 229, India collapsed from 191 for 3 to 219 all out. Raj reiterated the importance of a “30-odd” from one of the lower-order batsmen in such situations.

“Those are the matches where we expect them to score runs and step up. So these knocks will give them the confidence to perform in similar situations.”

Raj also hinted that the 17-year old Jemimah Rodrigues, who made her ODI debut on Monday, would have to make way for the captain’s return rather than the more experienced Raut, especially in light of Raut scoring a brisk 37 on Monday and Rodrigues managing only 1.

“I think tomorrow’s XI will give you the answer,” Raj said. “But doesn’t mean that after a game if [younger players are] sitting out, doesn’t mean they are dropped. As a youngster, you have years in front of you, so you have opportunities knocking at your door. It’s just that on that day you may not be a fit in the best XI.”

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