Opening troubles, middle-order muddle leave India with plenty to ponder

Harmanpreet Kaur sports a pensive look Annesha Ghosh

India's 3-0 whitewash at the hands of New Zealand in the T20Is exposed the chronic infirmity of their batting line-up. With a home series lined up against England next month, and about a year out from the next T20 World Cup, there's plenty for India's think tank to ponder (and amend). ESPNcricinfo underlines a few of the points:

Harmanpreet's parched run leaves Mandhana fighting forlornly

Smriti Mandhana, currently the best batsman in the Indian side, said after the side's loss in the series opener, that her batting through 20 overs is the "best [tactical] option" at the team's disposal to avoid recurrent collapses. On "good [batting] tracks", as underlined by Mandhana herself, India weren't able to post 160 even once, despite her 58, 36, and 86, and contributions from the young Jemimah Rodrigues. The inexperience of the rest of the line-up aside, India's dismal show with the bat was, in part, down to the underwhelming returns of their most explosive batsman and captain, Harmanpreet Kaur.

India's over-reliance on Harmanpreet in the shortest format isn't novel. In the 14 T20Is that India have surpassed 150, Harmanpreet has made 30 or more nine times, including three 60-plus scores and a ton. Their second highest tally, 194, was largely down to Harmanpreet's 103, the highest T20I score by an Indian woman.

But having finished 2018 as the world's second-highest run-getter, in India's first assignment in 2019, she tallied her lowest in a three-match bilateral series, with 24 runs.

Her underwhelming returns in New Zealand denied Mandhana, the top-scorer in the series, the support she needed from her fellow Indian recruit in the KSL and WBBL. More tellingly, it handed Harmanpreet a second 3-0 whitewash in the format since she took over as full-time captain.

SOS Raj?

With her unbeaten 20-ball 24, at No. 5, in the third T20I , Mithali Raj may not have put herself in pole position to reclaim her place as opener in T20Is. But India's most experienced batsman did enough to bolster a case for her inclusion as a floater in a crippling middle order. In any case, by her own admission, that was how Harmanpreet envisaged using Raj in the World T20 opener, in which she was removed from the opening slot, but retained in the side.

In the T20I series against New Zealand, so thin and unreliable did India's middle-order resources appear, that opener Mandhana and No. 3 Rodrigues accounted for nearly 75% of the 421 runs India scored off the bat, making a combined 312 runs in six innings. The only semblance of resistance from the middle order came in the game Raj batted in, albeit at No. 5. In the first two T20Is, they squandered brisk starts provided by Mandhana and Rodrigues, losing nine for 34 in the first T20I upon Mandhana's dismissal, and managing only 64 (Rodrigues made 40 of those herself) in 10.2 overs for the loss of five wickets after Mandhana fell in the second T20I.

It's something to consider for Harmanpreet: should her move to back young players leading up to the 2020 T20 World Cup come at the expense of overlooking the buoyancy Raj's experience offers, or the security that comes with the conventionality of her strokeplay? Both may help calm the nerves in a young line-up that, more often than not, has been guilty of imploding due to cavalier shot selection.

Under-utilised, slipping under the radar

Much like their opponents, India seem to be unsure of how best to deal with allrounder Deepti Sharma. Since January 2018, Deepti, the bowler, has consistently upset opponents' plans, taking 21 wickets in 22 T20I innings. India, however, have struggled to draw up a plan for Deepti, the batsman. In the 12 T20I innings she's batted (in 21 completed matches), she's slotted in five times at Nos 6 and 7, twice at Nos. 8 and 9, five times at Nos 3, 4 and 5, but never opened for India.

Deepti, however, has played anchor to great effect, as an opener, for her domestic side Bengal over the past two seasons. Her ODI and T20I career strike rates are 64 and 93 respectively, but under pressure, she's capable of using her feet and clearing the rope, as evinced in the crucial 71-m six she hit, six balls into her innings during India's chase in the third T20I.

Rodrigues has only once been used as an opener in T20Is since her debut last year, and with Priya Punia, who earned her maiden T20I call on the back of her 50-overs showings in domestic cricket, amassing nine runs as an opener in the three matches, India could consider opening with two left-handers in Mandhana and Deepti. The punt could, in turn, open up a spot for an extra bowler, in particular the allrounder Shikha Pandey, who, after being left out of the World T20 squad, played all three ODIs but sat out all three T20Is against New Zealand.