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Will Kaur and Mandhana deliver in Melbourne?

Harmanpreet Kaur gets stumped against Australia (AFP) Harmanpreet Kaur has scored just 26 runs in the T20 World Cup so far (AFP)

March 7, 2020

“It happens with the best of performers. They have that uncanny knack of turning it on when it really matters and is really required. The bigger the occasion, the better they are.”

Those were the words of India coach WV Raman after the washed out semi-final against England in the T20 World Cup. He was asked about the lack of runs from his captain Harmanpreet Kaur and star player Smriti Mandhana in the tournament and whether they can deliver when the whole world will be watching the final on Sunday night. He was always going to back his players and this is not one of those revelatory statements that makes you sit up, pinch your ears to make sure you really heard that.

Mandhana has played three matches in the tournament so far and scored just 38 runs. Kaur has had even less of a productive tournament, as she has played four matches and scored a total of just 26 runs. Luckily for India, the likes of Shafali Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues and Deepti Sharma have saved India’s batting displays to make them win every match they have played so far in the tournament.

But the final will be on a completely different scale in terms of pressure. The expectation will be on Kaur and Mandhana to deliver. But is it really that easy to turn on a switch and look like a completely different player on the biggest night of your cricketing career?

The first thing to look at is how often do captains perform in World Cup finals. The first few T20 World Cup finals showed that even as arguably the most important member in the side, being captain is not enough to perform with the bat or ball. New Zealand’s Aimee Watkins was captain for the first two T20 World Cup finals in 2009 and 2010. But she scored a collective of just four runs in those two matches. This was despite Watkins being the leading run scorer in the 2009 edition with 198 runs before the final. Even England’s Charlotte Edwards and Australia’s Alex Blackwell did not perform well with the bat in those respective matches. This was completely understandable because of the huge occasion and the number of things that must have been on their minds at that time. But now, the trend of captains failing seems to have changed.

The last two T20 World Cup finals have seen captains deliver when the pressure is really on. In particular, one woman has stood out and that is Australia’s Meg Lanning. She has played in the last three World Cup finals and she averages 62 with the bat. Every time Australia are under pressure or in need of something inspirational, their captain is on hand to step up in front of millions of eyes. Given that Lanning scored an unbeaten 49 in the semi-final against South Africa on Thursday, she looks in prime form to take her side over the line on Sunday in front of a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground. Even West Indies’ Stafanie Taylor played a starring role in the 2016 final, where she hit a sparkling 59 to put her team within touching distance of the trophy.

The statistics tell us that we can expect Lanning and Kaur to perform in the final on Sunday. But is it really that easy to turn the switch and deliver, if you have not had a productive tournament in the run up to the biggest game?

A way to look at this is to see the players that have historically had match-winning displays in the final. In the most recent final two years ago, the highest run scorer was Danni Wyatt with 43 runs. But in the matches before that final, she had only scored 36 runs in total. Even in 2010, New Zealand’s Sophie Devine was the top scorer in the final with an unbeaten 38, but scored just 58 runs in the matches before that. Therefore, it is possible to make runs in the final when you have not delivered previously in the tournament. But it would help to have been successful in the matches beforehand.

The bowlers however, have had a distinct trend compared to the batters. Taking wickets throughout the tournament is a good indication that you will bowl well on the biggest stage too. In fact, the last three finals have seen the highest wicket taker of the tournament be the best bowler on show, in terms of wickets, in the final. The first T20 World Cup final was the outlier, because Katherine Brunt finished with brilliant figures of 3/6, but she had only taken one wicket in the rest of the tournament.

Having a look at this data tells us that a surprise batter could take the limelight in Melbourne on Sunday, but Poonam Yadav and Megan Schutt, who are the joint leading wicket takers of the tournament with nine wickets each, should have one of the best days of the tournament on the biggest stage.

Without question, Sunday’s encounter between India and Australia will be a historic occasion not just on the pitch, but also because of the significance of the build up around the match. Millions of people will be tuned in to watch the stars of these two teams battle it out for the ultimate prize. But the hope or expectation from India that a senior player like Mandhana can just simply turn it on when it really matters, when she has had a difficult tournament, may be a little far fetched. But as for captain Kaur, it could be a moment to savour if she like other captains in the last three World Cups delivers on the night of the final.