Asian Games women’s cricket: India start favourites, but must mind the gap

India is the only Asian team to have made it to the semifinals or beyond at the last three ICC Women’s T20 World Cups. In all the editions of Women’s Asia Cup, only once has India not won the title. As seven-time champions of the continental event, including the most recent one in 2022, it is only obvious that they start favourites for the gold medal at the Asian Games in Hangzhou.

But Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana and Co must be wary of the gap closing between them and their closest rivals in Asia. More so in the T20 format, says former India captain Mithali Raj.

“I have been following the progress of the Sri Lankan and Pakistan teams. Both have won against very good sides like England, New Zealand and South Africa,” Mithali told The Indian Express. “They are coming into the Asian Games on a high after good series. Bangladesh too have done very well against India. We are favourites, but I look at this Asian Games as being very competitive.”

India will begin their campaign on Thursday with a quarterfinal against a yet-to-be-decided opponent. The real test will begin in the semifinals where the line-up is expected to be the top four Asian nations, with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh all favoured to get there.

India’s potential semifinal will be against Bangladesh, and that – as was recently seen in the bilateral series – will not be easy. Pakistan and Sri Lanka are likely to contest the other semifinal. Nida Dar’s captaincy era began with a 3-0 home win against T20 World Cup finalists South Africa while Chamari Athapaththu is no longer a lone ranger for the Lankans as she oversaw a collective triumph away against England.

India, on the other hand, have not been in action since the dramatic finish to the Bangladesh series that will see captain Harmanpreet miss the team’s next two matches. While India’s squad selection once again raised eyebrows, the talent in their ranks is undeniable.

With an average age of 23.7, India have a young group of players who would be itching to get on top of the podium. In Shafali Verma, Richa Ghosh and Titas Sadhu, there are three members of the U19 World Cup-winning squad. In Kanika Ahuja and Minnu Mani, they have a couple of exciting prospects coming through. Jemimah Rodrigues is a veteran by experience and has a good recent record against Asian opponents.

“When you are trying to build a side, especially a good second rung, it’s better to infuse youth when the seniors are around. But even the youngsters in this squad have good experience and are seasoned players,” Mithali said.

Herd without shepherd

However, the team has now gone nine months without a head coach. Hrishikesh Kanitkar has once again been given interim charge, but not having a steady backroom staff is not ideal for a team hoping to kick on to the next level at major events. Lack of recent game-time is a concern, with India’s opponents coming in much more match-ready.

“Ideally, a set-up with a consistent coach works best,” Mithali said. “Then the captain and coach can have a vision for the team. With frequent changes, that gets lost somewhere. Then you are playing one series at a time. If you are building a team for a big event, there needs to be a vision to show the players that this is what we are aiming at. There is also planning for a tournament. With the World Cup coming, I am sure that’s being looked into.”

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For all of India’s improved performances in recent years in the women’s game, a major senior trophy or medal has been elusive. The jury is out on whether the Asian Games counts as a major event, but a gold will be a shot in the arm for this squad.

“Having the favourites tag is one thing, but actually having the medal around your neck is completely different,” Mithali added. “And for that, you have to go through the process of doing the right things. India have to play to their potential, no one will be giving it to them easily. The way we play against Australia, we need to keep improving that in all matches, improving our standards. This tournament, if India can win the gold, will help us to build forward. Having that gold medal will be a big boost.”

India’s squad: Harmanpreet Kaur (Captain), Smriti Mandhana (VC), Shafali Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues, Deepti Sharma, Richa Ghosh (wk), Amanjot Kaur, Devika Vaidya, Titas Sadhu, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Minnu Mani, Kanika Ahuja, Uma Chetry (wk), Anusha Bareddy, Pooja Vastrakar.

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