Until Saturday, July 8, Mithali Raj and her girls looked impeccable in the ongoing ICC Women's World Cup tournament in England. The Indian women's cricket team, with their all-round performances -- four wins on the trot, were well on course to make a strong bid for their maiden world title.
However, the Women in Blue were crushed by a mammoth 115-run margin in their group encounter against South Africa on Saturday, July 8. They were pushed on the backfoot from the word go as explosive South Africa opener Lizelle Lee struck a 65-ball 92 to help her team post 273 on board.
India, in pursuit of their highest ODI chase, were jolted early as leading run-scorer Smriti Mandhana's stay in the middle lasted only for eight balls into the innings. Valiant knocks from Deepti Sharma (60) and tail-ender Jhulan Goswami (43) were not enough as India's 16-match unbeaten run came to an end in Leicester.
The crushing defeat has now come as a concern to India's chances of making the semi-final. Raj's side (8 points) are still second on the table with four wins from five matches behind leaders Australia. However, they are now in a position where they need to necessarily win their remaining matches to make sure they don't have depend on permutations and combinations.
At the end of the eight-team round robin group stage, only the top-four get to progress to the semi-final. And with India's remaining matches coming against defending champions Australia and New Zealand, a lot of work still needs to be done.
Also, there is pressure from third-placed New Zealand and fourth-placed South Africa as both of them trail India just by a point. Hosts England women are currently placed fifth with six points, but they have a game in hand over the second-placed side.
If India manage to win one of their next games and England loses one of their next three games, Raj's side will progress to the semi-final.
However, if India, who have the least Net Run Rate among the top-five teams, lose both the matches, they are in danger of being leapfrogged by the three tailing teams. In-form New Zealand and South Africa will just have to win one of their two remaining games, whereas England will be through if they manage to win two of their next three games.
Stats are against India
Notably, India have had long-standing troubles against their upcoming Tans-Tasmanian opponents.
The Women in Blue have the worst winning record -- 8 wins in 41 matches, 19.51% -- against Australia, whom they will be facing in Bristol on Wednesday, July 12.
Since the 2013 World Cup, India have played the world number one side only once. In the three-match series played in 2015, Raj's side were beaten on the road 2-1.
On the other hand, India have been beaten by New Zealand, the third-ranked ODI side, 27 times in 44 meetings. Notably, Raj and girls were also outplayed by the Black Caps 3-2 in a five-match series at home in 2015.
Raj reflects on loss
Skipper Raj, after Saturday's defeat to South Africa, pointed out that the openers need to come up with better performances if they are to progress past the group stages.
"The way they (the openers) opened the World Cup campaign for us against England, we were expecting maybe one or two off games but it can't be four in a row. So that is a worrying factor because whether you bat first or chase, it's important your top order gives you those runs on the board," Raj said, as quoted by ESPNcricinfo.
Southpaw Mandhana impressed early in the campaign with a 90 against England and a ton against the West Indies. Ever since, she has been able to manage only scores of 2, 8 and 4.
Apart from the batters, the spin trio of Ekta Bisht, Poonam Yadav and Deepti Sharma will be key to India's chances of troubling Australia and New Zealand.