IND W VS SAW

Relentless Vastrakar carries the baton forward

Vastrakar was named Player of the Series
Vastrakar was named Player of the Series ©BCCI

Marizanne Kapp had taken the middle-stump guard. Into her second PowerPlay over, Pooja Vastrakar sent down three consecutive balls on a full length just outside off-first, a play and a miss. The second was defended to point. Just before the third, Kapp reset to an off-stump guard but ended up miscuing it over the covers for a brace. Vasktrakar was quick to take notice of the switch. For the fourth delivery the pacer decided to hit the Test match hard length on middle, with a bit of extra pace, cramping Kapp for room as she decided to heave it over midwicket. Result: rushed into her shot, Kapp mistimed a dolly for Shafali Verma to perish for 10.

Vastrakar will remember her 50th T20I wicket for a long time. This set-up and a four-ball battle between arguably one of the finest batters in world cricket at the moment and a pacer who is on her second wind as India's new-ball bowler set South Africa up for their most embarrassing batting outing of this T20I series, on Tuesday.

For a third successive game inside five days, the Chepauk wicket had slowed down from the runs-filled belter it had originally turned out to be just last Friday. Unlike South Africa, Vastrakar was quick to adapt - to its inconsistent bounce and slowness as the series progressed - and kept attacking the stumps relentlessly with an immaculate control on line and length.

In the process, she registered her career-best T20I figures of 4/13, becoming only the second Indian pacer, after Jhulan Goswami, to 50 wickets in the format. In her 19 balls, Vastrakar sent down 13 dots to mount pressure on visitors, who were adamant about sticking to their brand of cricket which, in hindsight, proved too attacking for the conditions.

Vastrakar conceded only two boundaries in all, one to Wolvaardt and one at death to Anneke Bosch. The comeback was strong: a length ball that came in to trap Bosch LBW - rapping her on the front pad just above the knee roll - as she moved across to work it to the leg-side and missed it completely. In the same over, the pacer cramped Nadine de Klerk for room and got her to chop on for a third-ball duck. As South Africa slid from 57/3 to 61/5 in the 11th over, the visitors knew the game had also slipped from their grasp. Her fourth came right at the start of the 18th over - her final of the night - as Eliz-Mari Marx nicked to the 'keeper with the tourists folding for mere 84 after a couple of solid batting shows on the same pitch to make 189 and 177 previously.

Vastrakar's transformation isn't overtly new. Her journey as an India cricketer had begun with the new ball, but recurring injuries, and subsequent time on the sidelines, meant the team had to look elsewhere while still very rarely keeping her as a backup. But with the beginning of the Amol Muzumdar era, the Madhya Pradesh pacer gradually earned back the promotion to being India's strike bowler upfront.

At the NCA under Troy Cooley, who was also India's bowling coach until January, Vastrakar worked extensively on improving her fitness and also adding new skills to her repertoire. Her control improved, the bouncer was now being unleashed more often, and her game awareness earned her high praise. Her consistency across the two Tests in December were a testament to that.

Since the 2023 T20 World Cup, no bowler has taken more wickets for India in the format than Vastrakar's 23 at an average of 15.86 and economy 6.61. She was breathing fire in the five-match series in Bangladesh - the venue for the 2024 edition - on India's April tour, but didn't have a lot of wickets to show for. Vastrakar just carried that same form to Chennai, and stamped her authority over an even stronger, in-form opposition with a Player of the Series award for her 8 scalps at an average of mere 9.12 and economy just a shade over 6.5.

Interestingly, among her eight wickets in Chennai are each of the top-six batters of South Africa's deep batting order at some point across the three games. Not just a mere piece of trivia, this is a reflection of her efficacy with the new ball and old. Besides in the powerplay, Vastrakar has also provided breakthroughs in the middle overs and at death, quickly turning into captain Harmanpreet Kaur's go-to bowler in the shortest format.

In the series-opener, on a rather batting-friendly surface, Vastrakar had given only three runs in her two-over opening spell with the new ball and had nearly got Laura Wolvaardt caught at backward point. She returned at in the slog-overs and created another chance off the game's top-scorer Tazmin Brits, which went abegging again. A terrific final over comprised only six runs and two vital strikes, including Brits, to limit the damage as Vastrakar wrapped up with 2/23. As it turned out, in a game where 366 runs were scored, Vastrakar was the only bowler across teams to go at less than run-a-ball.

Albeit leaking 37 runs in her four overs in Game 2, she got rid of a quick-off-the-blocks Wolvaardt in the powerplay spell and returned at the backend to send de Klerk packing before the aggressive allrounder could cause much damage.

When Renuka Thakur, India's first-choice, struggled for form or consistency, and was subsequently dropped, Vastrakar put her hand up to script a comprehensive victory for India in the series decider. It was a mere extension of the fight she'd shown most recently in the 2nd ODI as well, in Bengaluru.

Defending mere 11 off the final over, and after conceding five runs on the first two balls off full tosses, Vastrakar expertly took the pace off and claimed two crucial wickets in consecutive slower balls to completely halt South Africa's momentum in what could have been a world record chase of 325.

Even in the one-off Test last week - her third of the season - Vastrakar saw the spinners mop up all ten wickets in the first innings but kept bending her back and consistently bowling the hard lengths to not let South Africa score easily off her pace either, finishing with 16-7-35-1.

"It's just brilliant to watch her," said Smriti Mandhana of her teammate as she set up India's commanding 10-wicket win. "As a batter - it's been a long series - and I can feel my body. But as a bowler, I don't know how she's done that. Bowling n number of overs in one-day cricket, the Test, and then coming into the T20Is, [it] really isn't easy.

"Let alone as a batter, as a bowler, I can't even imagine her workload or how she's managed it. But, to see her go about her work day in, day out [has been impressive].

"Right from the Bangladesh series - I don't know if that matches were live telecast here [or not] - but the way she bowled, especially in death, I couldn't see a ball at times. It was really hard to sight a ball when she's bowling that quick. At least seeing it live [it felt like so].

"So, we all knew that she's had some different spark in the last two, three months [with] the way she's just been bowling. Coming into the series, we were all really confident. But the way she bowled, especially in the first two matches, when the wicket was really, really flat, for her to come back with those sort of match figures was really impressive.

"Hopefully she keeps doing the same thing again and again, and she'll be a really crucial [factor for India] going into the World Cup," the India vice-captain added.

Not long ago, Vastrakar was a doubtful starter ahead of this multi-format series due to a shoulder niggle she picked up during the T20I tour of Bangladesh. Ever so briefly, but the news had rekindled concerns over her fitness and whether India should just bubble-wrap her with two World Cups lined up in as many years. With this Player of the Series award in the T20Is, after all the toil in the two other formats over the last month, Vastrakar has put that chatter to rest. And, likely, also the new-ball debate.

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