Could Mithali's inclusion have saved India's World T20 prospects?
New Delhi: India's team selection in the 8-wicket women's World T20 semi-final loss to England on Friday seemed to defy all logic even as skipper Harmanpreet Kaur's defence of having "no regrets" of keeping veteran Mithali Raj out of the playing XI hardly found any takers.
Going by sheer statistics, Mithali, with 2,283 T20I runs, is the highest scorer for the country in the shortest format, even surpassing the likes of her male counterparts -- Rohit Sharma (2,214) and Virat Kohli (2,106) -- and to that extent, the team skipper herself, who has 1,886 runs.
In the World T20, Mithali had opened the batting along side Smriti Mandhana on two occasions, and on both the former skipper had scored back-to-back half centuries while also bagging the Player-of-the-Match awards.
The veteran right-hander was dropped to No.8 in the order in the tournament opener against New Zealand, with stumper Tanya Bhatia partnering Smriti. Mithali was then rested from the last league game against Australia as she was unwell.
Cut to Friday's toss at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium here. India won the toss and opted to bat and it was then that Harmanpreet announced that Mithali was not in the playing XI. She said that the Indian management had decided to back its winning combination.
Now coming to the outcome, Mithali's replacement Tanya managed a meagre 11 before falling to England skipper Heather Knight while Smriti top scored with 34 runs, before a lower order collapse completely derailed India's innings.
On a pitch that demanded the technical acumen of Mithali, and where stroke play wasn't the easiest way to approach, the Indian team management's ploy of excluding the former skipper cost it dear, which was evident from the fact that the last seven Indian wickets fell for mere 23 runs.
But in the post-match presentation, when Harmanpreet defended the decision, she hardly found any takers with many cricket experts terming it as a big mistake.
"India paid the price for two mistakes. One in planning, by dropping Mithali on this pitch. The other in execution, by rushing down the pitch to muscle the ball in front of the pitch on a very slow pitch," former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar wrote on Twitter.
Noted cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle also criticised the move in a couple of tweets, in which he wrote: "If India can go in without Mithali Raj, this must be twice as good a batting side as any in the world!!! What is the story there?"
"Can understand, if you have to, that you leave out Mithali in a 180 game. But on a tough pitch? Then you play your best players and she is that," Bhogle wrote.
As sports journalist Suprita Das put it: "Let's just say the team got its strategy horribly wrong on a big day. The coach could've also had a say in this. It's a bit baffling that India would decide to drop an in-form Mithali on a track like this. She's our best bet to anchor an innings when in trouble. There's no guarantee of course that she would play the anchor's role today as well, but goes without doubt that Mithali's calmness may've helped the team hold their nerves even while defending the total."
"How India and the various stakeholders of the sport react to the current result is what will tell us whether we really care about women's cricket in India or not," Suprita, whose book "Free Hit: The Story of Women's Cricket in India", will release in early December, told IANS.
Till Friday, India remained the sole unbeaten side in the 2018 World T20 but like last year it was once again an England team that stood as a stumbling block to the Women in Blue's pursuit of a title in a big-ticket event.