"I want you to get a feel of enjoyment rather than think of runs..."
As Harmanpreet Kaur made her way into the nets for a second round of hits at a windswept Junctional Oval on Tuesday, India head coach WV Raman tried to put things into perspective for the captain of India. On the eve of their face-off against New Zealand at the ongoing T20 World Cup, it appeared as though it was not so much the leader of his side Raman was trying to reach; veiled in a veneer of instructions, his words registered as encouragement for a talisman of the Indian batting line-up eager to break out of the funk.
The reminder to enjoy, to play with freedom of mind came from Raman after the first round of shots yielded mixed results for Kaur. Paired up with Jemimah Rodrigues against a pool of bowlers that included wrsitspinner Poonam Yadav, left-arm spinner Rajeshwari Gayakwad, pacer Arundhati Reddy and a local Under-14 male medium-pacer, a visible discomfort against Gayakwad had Raman float words of encouragement from the adjacent nets, standing almost parallel to Kaur.
The next four balls elicited greater purpose. Reddy and the U-14 quick were drilled straight down the pitch and towards cover respectively before a typically flighted delivery from Yadav was met with a similar fate as Kaur sashayed down the track to unfurl an exquisite cover drive. Gayakwad followed in from round the wicket only for Kaur to go down on one knee to tonk it towards deep-square leg.
"Kaun bola left-arm spinner ko nahi maar sakte [Who said it's not possible to go after a left-arm spinner?" Raman chimed in, walking towards the nets left of Kaur where Smriti Mandhana, yet to fully recover from a cold, had been taking throwdowns, coughing intermittently.
"She's been looking good in the nets. It's just about that one knock," Mandhana would tell reporters ahead of the session, confirming she had recuperated from the viral fever that had ruled her out in the game against Bangladesh on Monday. "I'm sure she'll go out there and bat and get that big one for us. It's really not a worry because the way she has been batting in the nets, and I hope she gets one [big knock] for us, and gets it tomorrow."
The rest of the session brought Kaur varied luck. Yadav's wristpin - much slower through the air than Gayakwad's left-arm spin - and the mixed pace from the two quicks brought out some of the best of Kaur's belligerence. The lofted drives - over mid-on, mid-off and midwicket - in particular and even those struck along the ground had an air of authority that Kaur herself seemed to be searching for against the only left-armer in the mix. Save for one length ball she lofted over the bowler's head, Gayakwad's dominance would elicit mild grunts every time Kaur stepped out but was beaten by an arm ball, failed to connect a sweep, or found an under-edge that scurried towards fine-leg.
"Sab balance ka khel hain [It's all about getting the balance right]," Raman would remind Kaur as the fourth round came to a close with another straight drive off Reddy. It's advice that may have, in part, got to do with the two times Australia left-arm spinner Jess Jonassen dismissed her at this venue last month during the tri-series, the latter in the final which India lost by 11 runs.
New Zealand do not have a left-armer in their squad, so Raman's suggestion could also be down to the seeming hurriedness that underpinned Kaur's two cheap dismissals in the World Cup so far: stumped in the seventh over and caught at backward point in the 11th against Australia and Bangladesh respectively.
In their first two matches India put on totals in excess of 130 - and ended up on the winning side - despite single-digit contributions from Kaur. It speaks for the welcome sense of security that has buoyed Kaur in a line-up she's no longer the undisputed face of explosiveness. "Nowadays Smriti [Mandhana] and Shafali [Verma], not just me," she would tell the T20 World Cup's social media channels when asked who the 'biggest six hitter' in the team was.
A win over New Zealand could catapult India into the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup for a second straight time. There's precedence in the previous two world tournaments how even a semblance of form from Kaur can translate into a match-defining fifty or hundred and catch New Zealand off guard.
Since her blockbuster 103 against the same opponents in the 2018 T20 World Cup opener, though, Kaur hasn't struck a half-century in the 27 limited-overs international innings, 21 of those in the shortest format. The want of consistent runs may have played a part in Diana Edulji, the former India captain who gave Kaur several opportunities early in her career, floating the suggestion ahead of the tournament that "maybe Harman should give up captaincy and play her natural game. Something seems to be troubling her..."
As the fight for the knockouts berth enters its defining leg, greater coherence among India's batters will be called for; applause for every right move will ring far and wide, every wrong step debated by fans and critics alike. So, while the buzz around the fearless teen brigade continues to gather force, Kaur's focus needs to be to dull the noise in her head and do exactly what her coach asks of the premier match-winner in his side: "get a feel of enjoyment rather than think of runs..."