Winning in India is hard, or at least it’s supposed to be. But when they haven’t played an ODI for 487 days, nor in any format for 364 days, it becomes that bit easier. Even so, for South Africa to not just win but win 4-1 was supremely impressive.
Top-order batters Sune Luus and Laura Wolvaardt shared captaincy duties in the absence of the injured Dane van Niekerk, but it was the other member of South Africa’s top three who shone brightest.
Lizelle Lee was rightly named player of the series for her one hundred and two fifties, three of them unbeaten and all in winning chases. Her 288 runs at an average of 144 and a scoring rate of 5.17 runs per over, way above the series average of 4.55 and better than all but two players on either side, saw her transcend conditions in Lucknow where run-scoring was generally difficult.
English fans have already seen a taste of her brilliant best, when she brutalised a good Loughborough Lightning attack for a 55-ball hundred to take Surrey Stars to the 2018 Super League final, and she will hopefully be lighting up the country’s cricket grounds again this summer for the Manchester Originals in the Hundred.
In contrast to Lee’s power, her opening partner Wolvaardt is all class and finesse, with a cover drive to die for. She would be a joy to watch in Test cricket if South Africa’s women were ever allowed to play it. But her orthodoxy has seen her struggle to score at a modern white-ball pace, at least until the T20 World Cup, where she shone in a middle-order role, and while she scored two important fifties in this series, she went at over a run-a-ball slower than Lee.
India’s attack, while not toothless, was over-reliant on the phenomenally resilient Jhulan Goswami, still leading the attack it at the age of 38, and the canny left-arm spinner Rajeshwari Gayakwad, who between them took two-thirds of India’s wickets.
But as might have been expected for a side so robbed of recent cricket by the pandemic, and more tellingly the BCCI’s de-prioritisation during it, it was the batting that let India down.
Punam Raut was an honourable exception, but captain Mithali Raj was steady rather than decisive, Harmanpreet Kaur managed only powerful cameos, and South Africa’s attack even without van Niekerk proved too deep and too well-balanced.
India did not help themselves with selection. They left out their best seamer Shikha Pandey, one of their best spinners Ekta Bisht, and best wicketkeeper Taniya Bhatia, and did not pick their own powerful opener Shafali Verma, who lit up the T20 World Cup. But the off-field issues go much deeper than selection. India’s memorable run to the 2017 ODI World Cup final, including Harmanpreet taking apart the mighty Australia in the semi-final, ended in a middle and lower collapse that showed exactly where the team needed to develop.
But with all the BCCI’s resources, and with all the impetus of a team that’s reached two global finals in three years, this greater batting depth simply hasn’t emerged.
There is still, for example, no women’s IPL to acclerate batters’ development as the Big Bash has done for Australian players. The domestic pathway in terms of support and infrastructure is not even on the same level as India’s male U19 or A teams let alone the senior team.
Once they get some cricket under their belt, India will still likely be contenders to reach the latter stages and challenge England and Australia at the 2022 50-over World Cup. But with South Africa among others improving rapidly, they cannot stand still forever.