New Test dawn for India, but focus still firmly on white-ball formats

Debutant Minnu Mani gets a pat on the head from Yastika Bhatia BCB

When India and England line up at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai on December 14, it will mark the return of women's Test cricket in India after a nine-year gap. It will also be the first of two home Tests for India (the other is against Australia later in the month), the first time since the turn of the century that India will play back-to-back Tests.

The India squad has only two players who have been part of a home Test: Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur. In that sense, a new generation of women's players will be introduced to the format. Given that the BCCI has discontinued the days' format at the domestic level for women, much of what the players do in the middle will have come from a series of camps, practice games and net sessions.

Beyond the novelty of the Tests, of bigger importance are the series of white-ball games against England and Australia, keeping in mind the two World Cups - T20Is in 2024 and ODIs in 2025, at home - scheduled over the next 18 months. As India begin their run towards those two events, here are some things to keep an eye on.

Muzumdar takes guard

After Tushar Arothe - Ramesh Powar - WV Raman - Ramesh Powar - Hrishikesh Kanitkar - Nooshin Al Khadeer - Hrishikesh Kanitkar… it's Amol Muzumdar.

The former Mumbai batter, who was the BCCI's unanimous choice as head coach following a long-drawn process, is unlikely to have any settling down time, though, given his first two assignments are among the toughest. A three-T20I series and a Test against England, followed by a Test and six limited-overs games (ODIs and T20Is) against Australia.

Muzumdar comes with two decades of first-class experience and a formidable track record as a development coach, having been in charge of young Indian talent at Rajasthan Royals in the IPL and with the age-group structures during his time as a club cricketer in the Netherlands.

His most recent stint prior to the new job was with Mumbai in the men's domestic circuit, where he took over a team in transition. Having overseen failed white-ball campaigns, he guided them to the Ranji Trophy final in 2021-22, their first since 2016-17.

During his time, Muzumdar pushed for younger players, who were ready to transition, to be brought in. Among those who had a breakout red-ball season was Yashasvi Jaiswal, who has since gone on to make his Test debut. Shams Mulani, the left-arm spin-bowling allrounder, broke through for India A and Sarfaraz Khan kept piling on the runs despite talk around his short-ball frailties.

A member of the squad during the season credited Muzumdar's methodical approach and calmness as his biggest traits: "He kept the dressing room calm even during tough times; that mindset came right from the top. He played his cricket in a certain way, but he was welcoming of players with a different mindset and backed them to stick to those methods."

The current women's set-up doesn't have a dearth of players who back their unique methods, starting from the top with Shafali Verma.

WPL, Under-19s have changed the game

The WPL, a revival of the 'A' system, and a focus on the Under-19s thanks to the Under-19 T20 World Cup - India won the inaugural edition earlier this year - has helped in a big way, and several unheralded players have attracted instant attention.

Among them are Shreyanka Patil and Saika Ishaque, both of whom are primed for a T20I debut against England.

Patil went from being a non-starter to the brightest Indian performer for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the inaugural WPL. With the ball, her quick offspinners, especially at the death, proved effective. With the bat, Patil showed that her small frame was no hindrance to big hitting.

She went on have a prolific Women's CPL, where she was the only Indian and ended up being the highest wicket-taker, and backed those performances up for India A in the recent three match series against England A. She picked up five wickets in the three matches there and defended 12 off the final over to seal a tense win in the opening game.

Ishaque is an unconventional left-arm-spinner who has plenty of variations, including a carrom ball. Her ability to bowl across different phases of a T20 innings stood out during her stint with WPL champions Mumbai Indians. She ended the tournament as the joint-second-highest wicket-taker.

Titas Sadhu and Mannat Kashyap are two other young players who have enhanced their reputation over the past ten months. Sadhu didn't get too many opportunities in the WPL but has been part of an NCA target group along with Kashyap. Sadhu was also part of the Asian Games-winning side, where she picked up a three-for in the final.

Sadhu is quick and can move the ball both ways off the seam. Kashyap, meanwhile, is an old-school left-arm orthodox spinner who did her credentials no harm during the 'A' series, where she delivered thrifty spells. The challenge for Muzumdar, though, will be to draw a balance between handing opportunities to the younger players while also offering them long-term security.

That elusive lower-order firepower

One of the things brought up in the aftermath of India's so-near-yet-so-far World Cup campaigns has been the absence of lower-order firepower.

As such, the line-up is top-heavy with Mandhana, Shafali, Jemimah Rodrigues and Harmanpreet batting in the top four. But the middle and lower-middle-order woes need addressing. Richa Ghosh has shown glimpses of her big-hitting potential, but has been weighed down by form and fitness issues. Yastika Bhatia batted in the top order for Mumbai Indians and for Baroda, but hasn't been able to adjust to a middle-order role with the senior team. Having been dropped from the Asian Games squad, the England T20Is will make it a comeback of sorts for her.

While she continues to be a key bowler, Deepti Sharma hasn't exactly been able to translate her domestic form to a role in the lower order with the bat. She had an underwhelming WPL, managing all of 90 runs in eight innings at a strike rate of 83.33.

The selectors have punted on bringing in all-round balance, laying solid emphasis on multi-skilled cricketers. This has helped Patil and Minnu Mani, who led India A, jump the queue ahead of some experienced players such as Rajeshwari Gayakwad (for the T20Is). There's Pooja Vastrakar, too, who brings in lower-order hitting ability in addition to her seam-ups.

How they fare in this series could help lay down a roadmap for the next six months building into the T20 World Cup.