New Zealand 161 for 7 (Devine 72, Satterthwaite 31, Deepti 2-28) beat India 159 for 4 (Mandhana 86, Raj 24*, Deepti 21*, Devine 2-21) by two runs
Having sat out the first two T20Is, Mithali Raj made her comeback in the final match of the series against New Zealand. However, her efforts to help carry India over the line in a chase of 162 failed: having started the final over needing 16, the visitors lost by two runs. New Zealand rode on the efforts of Sophie Devine - 72 and 2 for 21 - to clinch the last-ball thriller against a side had derailed their World T20 campaign last November, even as Smriti Mandhana's second fifty of the series was in vain.
India needed 60 off 49 when Raj walked in to bat at No. 5, after captain Harmanpreet Kaur fell for 2. Her batting partner Smriti Mandhana had galloped to 75 off 49 balls by then but her dismissal in the 16th over, with India needing 39 off 27, lifted New Zealand's prospects.
A 71-metre six from Deepti Sharma off legspinner Amelia Kerr in the next over, coupled with a four from Raj and a host of singles kept India's chase on track. However, Devine wrested some control in the penultimate over, conceding only seven runs. The India batsmen struck two fours and took a single within the first three balls of the final over, and needed seven off three to win.
The next two balls, however, only yielded three runs and India needed four off the last ball with Raj on strike. Leigh Kasperek, having spotted Raj shuffle outside off, bowled one on the leg stump that was met with a diffident steer to midwicket.
India's chase had appeared more in control during Mandhana's innings, as she capitalized on a reprieve from Hayley Jensen who had been unable to get under a high catch near long-on, in the second over. Mandhana matched trademark suave with her benign belligerence thereafter, bringing up her ninth T20I fifty, off 33 balls. Her 62-ball blitz included one six and 12 fours, and she scored six of those fours against the offspinners Kasperek and Rosemary Mair, taking three boundaries off each in the third and tenth over respectively. However, 14 shy of a maiden T20I ton, Mandhana holed out cover off Devine.
Devine said the team felt the pressure when India were keeping up with the scoring but the lessons from the previous games had shown them India could crumble under pressure quickly.
"I got a bit fired up. Felt we were a bit complacent in the field," she stated. "They were making it look easy and we needed a bit of a rack-up so it was great to see the girls fired up and we put the pressure back on them. We saw in the first game how quickly it can change and it was the same day - couple of wickets, and all of a sudden dot balls become massive for us."
Devine had earlier provided another important breakthrough, dismissing Jemimah Rodrigues for 26 off 21 to end a 47-run second-wicket stand that had steadied India after an early wicket. And with the bat, Devine contributed a 65-ball 72, her dominance on both sides of the wicket helping New Zealand race to 52 for 1 after the Powerplay and 80 for 2 at the halfway mark.
She negated the advantage India had through the dismissals of Suzie Bates and Hannah Rowe, and had luck on her side, too. In the 12th over, Devine, on 36, smashed a wide delivery from pacer Arundhati Reddy straight to Punia at cover, where she copped the ball on her right shoulder region. The ball rebounded, pinged Punia square on the middle of her head while she lost sight of the ball.
Devine capitalised on the reprieve to strike eight fours and two sixes in total, and was helped along the way by captain Amy Satterthwaite's resolute 31. India clawed back into the game in the last four overs, conceding only 23 runs, after medium-pacer Mansi Joshi bowled Devine. Deepti played a part in that comeback with a double-wicket final over but India eventually found the target a bit out of reach.
Devine said the experience of playing in a closely contested series was something that couldn't be learnt by training or coaching, specially in the case of the younger players. It is in this context, too, that she lauded the opportunity to play double-headers, alongside the men's teams, which attracted larger crowds for the women's matches, too.
"The opportunity to play in front of some of the biggest crowds I have played in, and I have played around the world for a long time. So the opportunity to play in front of massive crowds - again it's experience in the bank. If we are playing in the final of the MCG with 85000 people we need to learn how to cope with it."
Mandhana echoed Devine's thoughts on this experience: "Not many girls are used to such big crowds, we generally get such crowds in the World Cup so girls come under a bit of pressure. If we get crowds in such series, it will be really good because everyone will be prepared to play under pressure. The crowd sets a momentum when they cheer for you after you hit fours or sixes."