Ind-W vs SA-W – Pooja Vastrakar steps up as India’s pace-bowling mainstay

She predominantly bowled in the middle overs until 2023, but has since looked threatening with the new ball in the the powerplay

Pooja Vastrakar finished with a career-best 4 for 13 in the third T20I against South Africa  BCCI

Our brain likes habits.

Change often requires a lot of mental energy to process. And choice overload while adapting to change can be real. In psychological terms, there are four key stages people tend to go through when experiencing change: shock/denial, anger/fear, acceptance, and commitment. Pooja Vastrakar crossed these stages last year to excel in her new job description: new-ball bowler.

There were signs after the 2023 T20 World Cup that the team management was gradually preparing the fast bowler to take the new ball more in the shortest format. Not that she hadn’t done it before – but the frequency has increased now, and she has looked more threatening, irrespective of the conditions.

Vastrakar made her T20I debut in 2018, and for almost the next five years, predominantly bowled in the middle overs, with an over or two at the death: 192 balls (excluding extras) in the powerplay, 322 in the middle overs (7-16) and 85 at the death.

However, since the last global event in South Africa, she has bowled 152 balls (excluding extras) in the powerplay, 114 in the middle overs and 65 at the death. Though the wicket column might only show five of the 23 wickets coming in the first six, her improved game awareness has often exerted pressure on the opposition’s opening batters and generated the momentum for India to strike in the subsequent overs.

It’s not just in the powerplay, though. Vastrakar has also stepped up in this role as India’s pace-bowling mainstay, with Renuka Singh in and out of action due to injury and workload management. Having taken long strides in getting fitter and stronger, Vastrakar has also worked on increasing her pace. She doesn’t shy away from using bouncers too.

It is only fascinating to note that she has featured in 19 of the 20 T20Is that India have played since last year’s World Cup – Deepti Sharma is the only bowler to take part in all these matches – and has aced it: 23 wickets at an economy of 6.61, the most for India. All this while playing in Asian conditions indicates that India are no more dependent on just their spinners.

“It was an opportunity for me, and whatever I practiced in the nets – bowling wicket-to-wicket – I executed,” Vastrakar said on Tuesday after her career-best 4 for 13 helped India bowl South Africa out for 84 in the third T20I, and eventually level the three-match series in Chennai. “I kept my plans simple. Bowling hard lengths help me. As an opportunity and a responsibility, the team felt I should be given the new ball. I wanted to pick up early wickets and give the team a good start by conceding less [runs].”

Pooja Vastrakar has featured in 19 of the 20 T20Is that India have played since last year’s World Cup  BCCI

Though all three T20Is were played on Pitch No. 7 at Chepauk, under lights it behaved a little differently in every game, and Vastrakar adapted to the conditions quickly. In the first match, the surface was more batting-friendly. It became a bit slower after the powerplay before rain washed out the chase in the second match.

The third game was also a tad on the slower side but had extra bounce. Vastrakar took two wickets each in the first two matches, and bagged the Player-of-the-Series award with eight wickets, adjusting her deliveries going from full to back of a length according to the situation.

Smriti Mandhana, India’s vice-captain, pointed out after the third T20I that Vastrakar has had “some spark in the last two-three months”. Perhaps it explains why India played her in all of the seven matches – across formats – in this multi-format series, while they handled Renuka with care – she was rested in the ODIs and T20Is keeping in mind the bigger picture.

“It’s just brilliant to watch her. As a batter, it’s been a long series; I can feel my body. But as a bowler, I don’t know how she’s done that,” Mandhana said. “And [after bowling] a number of overs in one-day cricket, Test match and then coming into the T20, [it] isn’t really easy. Let alone as a batter, as a bowler, I can’t even imagine her workload or how she’ll be managing. But I think that is a really big thing for me to see her go about her work day in, day out.”

“It was really hard to sight a ball when she’s bowling that quick – at least seeing it live. So we all knew that she’s had some different spark in the last two, [or] three months”Vice-captain Smriti Mandhana on Pooja Vastrakar

The focus now shifts to the Asia Cup beginning on July 18, but Mandhana added that Vastrakar will be “really crucial” even going into the World Cup in Bangladesh in October.

“In the last three T20 series, right from Bangladesh, I don’t know if those matches were live or something… But the way she bowled, especially in the death [overs], I couldn’t see a ball,” Mandhana said. “It was really hard to sight a ball when she’s bowling that quick – at least seeing it live. So we all knew that she’s had some different spark in the last two, [or] three months. The way she’s just been bowling.

“So yeah, coming into the series, we were all really confident. But the way she bowled, especially in the first two matches, the wicket was really, really flat for her to come back with those sort of figures… Really amazing. Hopefully, she keeps doing the same thing again.”

Our brain likes habits. Vastrakar’s might have now gotten used to her bowling with the new ball in this second chapter of hers. Maybe it’s time to translate that practice into perfection in a few months in Bangladesh.

Srinidhi Ramanujam is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo

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