Much of India's success at the World Cup in 2017 had revolved around the odd individual performance taking the team over the line. Until their virtual quarter-final win over New Zealand, India's struggle to fire as a unit - with the exception of their tournament opener against England - was first and most debilitatingly evinced in their group-stage 115-run loss to South Africa. Pitted to face an opposition that almost immaculately played out their "always rising" motto to give eventual winners England an almighty scare in the semi-final, India ODI captain Mithali Raj acknowledged the test of character the forthcoming tour of South Africa will pose for the team and the each of the players individually.
"It's a very important tour. It's not going to be easy because we've played South Africa before," Raj said. "They are a very good side; you've seen in the World Cup, they almost made it to finals, so it's going to be very competitive cricket and it will test each and every player and also as a team. It's important that the girls need to be confident that they're prepared well for the series."
It was not only at the World Cup that South Africa had brought India's winning streak at the tournament to an end. The last time India toured South Africa, for the Quadrangular series in May, the hosts had robbed India the opportunity to complete a record 17 consecutive ODI victories, even though the visitors won the title subsequently. Despite the formidable nature of the opponents and the near-seven month "break" during which India played no international cricket, Raj exuded confidence in the preparation the team has had going into the three-match ODI series - their first of the second cycle of the ICC Women's Championship - that will pave way for five T20Is and a packed home season, featuring back-to-back series against Australia and England.
"We had enough time to prepare for this series," she said. "It's again a beginning for us. We need to start afresh. The young girls have been in the match mould because they've been playing the domestic [tournaments]; and we had a week's preparatory camp here [in Mumbai]. A couple of them [Harmanpreet Kaur and Veda Krishnamurthy] are coming from the WBBL, so pretty much everybody is into the mode of playing matches."
While the inclusion of three young, uncapped players in the ODI squad has piqued much interest around the up-and-coming lot of Indian cricketers, Raj sounded a note of caution while weighing in on any likely tweaking of a well-tested combination the team management may opt for early on in the tour to accommodate the newbies.
"After the World Cup this is our first tour, so I wouldn't be trying out too many things because it's important for the core also to get confidence," she said. So, I'll be going in with the conventional batting order, so that we get the points because it's also important we win the matches and, accordingly, whenever we get a chance where we can try out a few things, then probably we can look into changing a few things in the batting order or the combination of the team.
The ODI series, starting February 5 in Kimberley, is also set to mark a first for both India and the hosts, in light of the new ICC playing conditions for the ICC Women's Championship, which came into effect in October 2017: both teams will be required to use two new balls each. While India's conventional practice with the ball - whether in the subcontinent or overseas - has been underpinned by their reliance on a spin-heavy attack, Raj voiced her disinclination towards trading the time-honoured template with employing a three-pronged pace pack.
"It all depends on how the first few games go first - if the spinners are bowling well, why would I actually look in to the other combination?" Raj reasoned. "But again, if, say the spinners aren't bowling that good then yes we try and look after another combination which can work for the team. But we try and have everything open for us - we have batters who can bowl a few overs. So we try and shape the team in such a way that we have a lot of choices tomorrow. But then it all depends on how the matches go for the first couple of games."
Raj also emphasised on the work put in by the coaching staff, led by head coach Tushar Arothe, in ensuring the bowlers are equipped to close out chases or get handy runs down the order - a shortcoming that played a part in India losing the World Cup final . Given 2018 also marks the year of the Women's World T20, Raj harped on how India's performance in the one-dayers could provide a practical groundwork for the T20I leg of the tour - to be led by Harmanpreet.
"He [head coach Tushar Arothe] has been working really hard on the bowlers, so we get those lower-middle-order runs," she said. "I think you know now it is [the ODI series] a start, a preparation for the T20 World Cup. Yes, it's been a while playing T20 format but we as an Indian team are looking forward to the T20 games and we as a team need to work really hard in this format."