Sneh Rana, Deepti Sharma and Taniya Bhatia show infrangible resolve as India pull Houdini act

Team India did the impossible on Day 4 in Bristol as the visitors batted the entirety of the final day to deny England what looked like a certain victory. Astonishingly, India’s lower-order, led by debutant Sneh Rana, batted close to 45 overs to ensure the visitors walked away with a draw.

Brief scores: IND W 344/8 f/o (Sneh Rana 80*, Sophie Ecclestone 4/118) & 231 all-out; ENG W 396-9 dec. Match drawn

In one of the great escape acts of the century, the Indian women’s side marked their return to Test cricket in style as the Mithali Raj-led side did the impossible on Day 4 to walk away with a draw. Resuming the day on 83/1, still trailing England by 82 runs, team India needed a miracle to avoid defeat. Their hopes largely rest on the duo of Shafali Verma and Deepti Sharma, who resumed the day on 55* and 18* respectively.

However, the visitors suffered a killer blow in just the fifth over of the day as the top-scorer from the first innings, Shafali, fell to the ever-nagging Sophie Ecclestone. Shafali smacked Ecclestone for a six down the ground on the first ball of the 29th over, but, four balls later, the 17-year-old fell to the worst delivery bowled by the left-arm-spinner. Ecclestone delivered a rank full toss, that was there to be dispatched once again, and Shafali, vying for glory, holed out to Katherine Brunt at long-on who took an astonishing catch. The youngster died by the sword and after dismissing India’s biggest threat in the first half-hour, England had their tails up.

Yet, despite making an early inroad, the next 30-over period proved to be frustrating for Heather Knight’s side. Deepti Sharma showed the same resilience she did in the first innings, while the experienced Punam Raut, who perished for 2 in the first innings, also held down the fort. Together the duo ground the English bowling down and at one stage, India looked set to go to lunch having lost the sole wicket of Shafali. Both Raut and Deepti batted with patience and slowly the two batters helped the visitors wipe the deficit off, giving a glimmer of hope.

But disaster struck right at the stroke of lunch as Deepti, attempting a wild heave off the bowling of Ecclestone, essentially gifted her wicket to the hosts. Prior to the slog, she’d gone 240 balls in the game without getting dismissed, but the miscalculated hoick resulted in her undoing. The visitors went to lunch six runs ahead, having lost each of their top three batters.

And the break, it seemed, was what the hosts needed to re-energize themselves as on the other side of lunch, England looked unstoppable. Three overs post the restart, skipper Mithali Raj perished after attempting to late-cut an Ecclestone arm-ball that was too full, and 16 balls later the well-set Punam Raut followed suit as the 31-year-old miscued a pull-shot straight to the throat of Ecclestone at square leg to bring the score to 175/5. India, at this point, were effectively 10/5, and a defeat seemed inevitable.

Harmanpreet Kaur and Pooja Vastrakar managed to arrest the slide but only briefly. The pair fended off the English threat for six overs, but Vastrakar lost her discipline when part-timer Heather Knight enticed her with a loopy off-break, as the debutant saw her stumps get castled after she missed a slog-sweep. Three overs later, the experienced Harmanpreet arguably played the worst shot of the innings as the right-hander aimlessly tried slog-sweeping Ecclestone against the turn, only to find herself caught by the keeper after the ball popped up innocuously. 175/5 became 199/7, India only 34 ahead with over 50 overs left in the day, and the hosts smelt an early finish.

Yet it wasn’t to be. There was to be one final – and telling – twist in the encounter, courtesy debutant Sneh Rana, ft. Shikha Pandey and Taniya Bhatia. Rana was picked in the side originally for her off-spin, and she vindicated the selection by picking four wickets in England’s only innings, but what England underestimated was her ability with the bat, which she’d displayed in the 2021 Women’s Senior Trophy. Representing Railways, the 27-year-old had struck 160 runs at an average of 40.00 and, come the big moment in Bristol, she brought to the fore some of that form and magic.

The odds were stacked completely against India but Rana did not give up. She cut just the fifth ball she faced for four, brandishing her courage proudly, and this fearlessness would end up setting the tone for the rest of the evening. Together with Shikha Pandey, she decided to deal with the game in phases and slowly, the visitors started planting doubts in the minds of the hosts. Post Harmanpreet’s dismissal, India went an entire hour of play without losing a wicket.

Rana guided along at optimal pace while Pandey, whilst taking the occasional risk, supported her partner efficiently. With just over 40 overs left in the day, India stretched their lead to 75 and for the first time in the day, there was a ray of optimism in the visitors’ camp. But as they’d done all game, it did not take long for England to crush the optimism as two overs before Tea the hosts struck, removing Pandey, albeit with a lot of luck.

The hosts did not strike in the first 10 overs with the second new ball, but the wicket came in the form of a leg-side-tickle in the 91st over, as Pandey nudged one straight to the keeper, off the bowling of Sciver. 75 was still the lead, but with one full session remaining, England still fancied their chances. Shikha Pandey’s wicket, however, instead of proving to be the turning point, turned out to be a false alarm. Rana, who stood put at 27 at Tea, resumed the final session with two boundaries off Brunt, and the over would prove to be symbolic of what was about to come for the rest of the day. Rana glided along effortlessly, and, much to everyone’s surprise, she was ably supported by Taniya Bhatia, who was rock solid.

Again, the pair dealt in phases and did nothing but bat, bat and bat. Rana kept the scoreboard ticking – crucially taking time away from England by expanding the lead – and in the process of doing so, became the first Indian women’s cricketer to take a four-wicket-haul AND score a fifty on debut. Bhatia, who despite making her Test debut had plenty of previous experiences dealing with big moments, summoned all her experience and channelled a calm that stumped England.

Time kept ticking, as did the scoreboard, and before England realized, India took the game away from them by stretching the lead well beyond 100. The last 90 minutes proved to be entertainingly monotonous, and after denying reality for a long, long while, the hosts finally came to the realization that the game was beyond them, and decided to shake hands to acknowledge moral defeat.

Rana and Bhatia proved to be heroes, and India ensured that the seven-year-long wait was worth it.

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