Navgire, Meghana, Rodrigues knocks provide relevance to Women's T20 Challenge ahead of big-ticket season

Jemimah Rodrigues and S Meghana stabilised Trailblazers' innings BCCI

It didn't matter if a wicket had fallen off the previous delivery. Kiran Navgire was going to muscle a first-ball six anyway.

The uncapped Indian batter had already hit a record 35 sixes in seven innings in T20s this domestic season. On Thursday, in her maiden appearance in the Women's T20 Challenge, she added four more of those to her tally with a blistering 34-ball 69 that included a 25-ball fifty, the fastest in the tournament's history, and set up her side Velocity's entry into the final.

"The way she batted, she took the final dream away from us," Smriti Mandhana, the opposition captain, said after the 27-year-old Navgire dashed Trailblazers' hopes of qualifying on a superior NRR to Velocity. "Somewhere I was a little sad that she was hitting against us but little happy as an Indian player that she was hitting hard and far and it was really good to see someone in women's cricket hitting into the stands."

Mandhana's team-mates, S Meghana and Jemimah Rodrigues, were no less a juggernaut with the bat themselves during the high-stakes clash at Pune's MCA Stadium that had nearly 2500 ticketed spectators, the highest in the tournament so far, in attendance. Making her debut in the tournament, in a must-win game at that, Meghana joined forces with Rodrigues to get the defending champions off to the kind of rapid start they needed.

Having lost the toss, Trailblazers had been after a tall total to defend. Only a win by at least 31 runs could have helped them overtake Velocity on NRR and Meghana's 47-ball 73 proved the perfect tone-setter for her side to motor to 190 for 5, the highest total across the tournament's four seasons.

Despite losing her fellow opener Mandhana for 1, Meghana, replacing Hayley Matthews in the opening role, remained unfazed and played aggressor's role to perfection. Making superb use of the crease and charging down the ground at will to muscle four towering sixes and seven fours, she added 61 in her 113-run stand with first-drop Rodrigues. Fresh off a 21-ball 24 in a losing cause, Rodrigues, by contrast, altered between relying more on touch and timing to hammer seven fours and a six in her 44-ball 66.

"The thought processes was only what my team requires me to do I need to be there," Rodrigues, the Player of the Match, said. "I knew [I could do that] because I was batting well. And even the way Meghana played - I think we were going really well. We were backing each other, supporting each other. When she was striking, I was rotating the strike. In between she was not getting the boundaries, [so] I was getting those odd boundaries."

Neither Meghana nor Rodrigues' rapid fifties nor Trailblazers' 16-run victory mattered much in the scheme of determining the finalists of a three-team, four-match tournament itself devoid of much meaning. With a big international season ahead, the pair's innings could, however, go some way towards breathing new life into their stop-start international careers.

"This knock was very special for me, very important, especially coming at this time," Rodrigues, who was overlooked for the New Zealand tour and the Women's World Cup earlier this year, said. "I believe this will be very close to my heart for a long time because the last few months haven't been very easy for me. A lot of things to learn, lots of ups and downs, but I think that's life and these times make you stronger."

"Honestly, I didn't think too much about the future," she added when asked if her fifty on Thursday could improve her chances of a spot on the Commonwealth Games squad. "But, yes, definitely that will obviously be playing in my mind because a very important season is going to start now with the Commonwealth and the [T20] World Cup, so I definitely wanted to be in the best touch and the best form and it's nice to score those runs. It gives you more confidence scoring runs and going back into the Indian team."

Meghana and Rodrigues, both capped top and middle-order batters who have spent more time on the bench than on the field for India in the recent past, made the kind of statements with the bat they needed to. Navgire, a relatively unknown prospect, showed why it might be imperative for the Indian T20I think tank to give her the chance to mould herself into a wrecking ball of a middle-overs accelerator or finisher in the international season ahead.

Three days ago, South Africa and Velocity batter Laura Wolvaardt had spoken highly of Navgire's skills. "I have been watching her in the nets in the last couple of days," Wolvaardt had said after Velcoity's win against Supernovas where Navgire didn't get a chance to bat. "We did a power-hitting drill [at training] and she hit the biggest sixes that I've ever seen a woman hit." On Thursday, Mandhana echoed Wolvaardt and described Navgire as an "exciting" talent with "great, great things to come for her going forward in the Indian set-up."

India are likely to play a bilateral series against Sri Lanka in June. The Birmingham Commonwealth Games, where women's and T20 cricket make their debut, is set to be played in July-August. The 2023 T20 World Cup, in South Africa, is scheduled for February. With a slew of major events lined up, neither the platform to showcase why the national squad might be richer for Meghana, Rodrigues, and Navgire's presence, nor the timing of their knocks, could have, therefore, been bigger or more opportune.

Two internationals with a future as uncertain as their past in the Indian side, and an uncapped, unheralded player with no big-game experience lighting up a high-octane clash… the seemingly identity-less Women's T20 Challenge hasn't felt this relevant since the summer of 2019 when, in Jaipur, Shafali Verma announced herself to the world.