Beginning Friday, India have 8 matches (assuming they make it to the Asia Cup final) in the lead up to the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in Bangladesh in October. First up, though, they will get to face a strong opponent in South Africa in Chennai over the next five days, in conditions that are expected to be similar to what they would be encountering in Sylhet and Mirpur.

Even before the team landed in Chennai for the one-off Test and the three T20Is, India knew what to expect in terms of the conditions. Having played the Tests on a slow red-soil surface, they will play all their three matches on the same strip – pitch No 7 – which has a black soil content. On the eve of the first match, it had a tinge of grass, but given the heat factor, as the series progresses, it is expected to slow down, which will replicate the conditions in Bangladesh in two months’ time.

This is the sort of meticulous planning that India believes will help them bring the Cup home. Over the past eight months, all of their preparations and team building have been done with the focus on the T20 World Cup, where they are pooled with Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Given the resources at their disposal and the struggles of New Zealand in spin-friendly conditions, getting past the group stage to the semi-finals is the bare minimum that is expected. And India rightly seems to be looking beyond that.

India Chennai: India Women’s Smriti Mandhana during a practice session ahead of the first T20 cricket match between India Women and South Africa Women, at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, in Chennai, Thursday, July 4, 2024. (PTI Photo/R Senthilkumar)

Unlike the ODIs, where they have largely appeared at home, the T20Is have been a bit of a problem for India. Last November-December, they suffered series defeats to England and Australia with identical 2-1 scorelines. Closing out the key moments has been their Achilles heel and despite those defeats, they thumped Bangladesh 5-0 away.

As far as the format goes, India are still a work in progress, but if one factors the conditions that would be on offer in Bangladesh, there are plenty of reasons for them to believe their time has come to cross the line. They are without Yastika Bhatia here, but they still appear a well-rounded squad.

Festive offer

But before all of that, India are at a juncture where they have to identify what their ideal combination is. The good news for them is that they have a settled squad in hand and thanks to the Women’s Premier League, they have got the sort of exposure that was previously lacking for them. And now with all their resources available, these eight T20Is will provide India a reality check. In that sense, South Africa would be their strongest opponent before the big event.

The combination lock

In both batting and bowling, there are a couple of unsolved puzzles for captain Harmanpreet Kaur. There is a three-way competition for the No 3 role, one which could well determine the make-up of who follows next and where. With Yastika expected to be fit by the time Asia Cup begins later this month, in Chennai Jemimah Rodrigues and local woman D Hemalatha will vie for the spot. Hemalatha has established herself as a batter with a strong game against spinners and one who can take them down any time she chooses. But she might not be suited to bat lower down the order in this format, which means Jemimah could well be the one India uses as a floater depending on the match situation.

“Yes, the discussions have happened. I am very clear about my role. I’m sure Hema is very clear about her role as well. The ultimate goal is how we can make India win the World Cup, whatever our batting order is. So I think nothing changes in that mindset. The entire team is very clear about what needs to be done,” Jemimah said on Thursday.

India Chennai: India Women’s Jemimah Rodrigues during a practice session ahead of the first T20 cricket match between India Women and South Africa Women, at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, in Chennai, Thursday, July 4, 2024. (PTI Photo/R Senthilkumar)

And in case India believes there is just one spot available, then it would open the door for Sajeevan Sanjana, who was used as a finisher alongside Richa Ghosh in Bangladesh.

Like batting, the big calls that India ought to make on the bowling front is around their spin combination. With Deepti Sharma leading the spin pack, India have a rounded-tweak attack at their disposal and more importantly all of them – Shreyanka Patil (off-spin), S Asha (leg-spin) and Radha Yadav (left-arm) – have been in good rhythm.

Although playing two frontline off-spinners could be stretching it as India can always make use of Harmanpreet, Hemalatha/Sajana, should they seek batting depth, Shreyanka will be an automatic pick. But that would mean there is just one spot to accommodate Radha or Asha. Asha, gives India a more attacking option and Radha has shown in recent times how far she has grown as a spinner.

The combination locks aside, India know their prime focus should be on maintaining the consistency. Across formats, they have struggled to keep the intensity going, which has led to them losing crunch moments. And in T20s, especially against big teams, they have struggled to deliver as a unit. Changing that habit right before the World Cup would do them a world of good.

“I think everything is pretty general and basic. We’ve not spoken something out-of-the-box or something differently. But yes, one thing we want to really work on is consistency. Consistently doing the simple things correctly and doing it again and again. From my perspective, if the team needs to gain out of this series, it would be just consistently dominating, making sure we do the right things again and again and again. That confidence will be really helpful,” Jemimah added.