India needed 38 more runs with seven wickets in hand. Jhulan Goswami had blown England away exactly at this stage in the first innings; she had stunning figures of 3 for 23 from her stipulated 10 overs. Captain and all-time ODI record scorer Mithali Raj was back in the pavilion after a needless run-out. But that didn’t seem significant anymore. She had a wry smile on her face from the dugout. She was watching her colleagues do what they seemed to have done through the Women's World Cup tournament – around her. This was it.
Opener Poonam Raut and semifinal centurion Harmanpreet Kaur had been cruising. Both had half centuries, and the 2017 Women’s World Cup – India’s first ever global title – was half an hour away. Veda Krishnamurti was attacking, often against logic, but seemed to have gotten away with it. The run rate required was under a run a ball. This was the first time ever India would chase down a total of more than 200 in a World Cup. What a day to do it!
28 runs later, it was all over. India has crashed, but not landed. They fell nine runs short of a fairytale victory. The lack of experience showed. Only one of the two teams was used to playing consistently on the big stage. Only one knew how to win.
Batswoman after batswoman panicked, going for the big shots when they needed singles. Raj watched, with that same wry smile, from the dugout. She could do nothing – except perhaps contemplate how she could have dived for the single instead of giving up midway through with Raut.
England had won their third World Cup – three more than the England men’s team has in the history of the game.
India has failed in their second final, after 2005 against Australia. It slipped away this time.
Nevertheless, there are ONLY positives to be found in this brave campaign. The Lord’s crowd has swelled to record numbers – an unprecedented sight in women’s cricket. People on Twitter were following the match as if it were Kohli leading the team. For once, there was no distinction between who was playing the game.
India’s run through to the Final of the tournament will be a game-changer for the sport here. BCCI had announced a cash award of INR 50 lakhs to each player even before the final – a considerable amount, given that women’s cricket is looked at not very differently from the way women’s hockey was looked at in Chak De! India.
At the beginning of the World Cup, which was coming in the slipscreen of the Indian men’s Champions Trophy Final defeat to Pakistan, not many knew about this form of cricket. Not many knew anyone except Mithali Raj (because she was on the verge of becoming ODI cricket’s highest scorer ever). Some knew bowler Jhulan Goswami – she played India’s last final in 2005. Mithali and Jhulan had been around through three generations, and this was to be their last World Cup. But as the team won matches – they won their first four on the trot – people began to wake up to the ‘others’. Opener Smriti Mandhana captured imaginations with her swashbuckling century against West Indies. Leg-spinner Poonam Yadav became famous overnight with her sensational spell against rivals Pakistan. She further cemented her legacy with a fantastic innings-turning spell in the final. Teenage all-rounder Deepti Sharma became the baby driver of the squad – and almost had her finest moment in the final. Harmanpreet Kaur played the greatest ever ODI innings in a World Cup – male or female – smashing defending champions Australia for 171 not out in the semifinal. Poonam Raut almost won the final single-handedly. By the end, these names became our Dhawans and Sharmas and Kohlis and Dhonis for three weeks – and we wouldn’t forget them anytime soon.
A Gentlewoman’s Game?
India lost all their warm-up games. Expectations were not very high. India eventually won five of their seven group stage games – including four in a row to open the tournament. They finished behind only Australia (5 titles) and England (3 titles) in the standings. managing to defeat New Zealand in their final game to make the semifinals. They lost only to South Africa and Australia – before demolishing Australia in the semifinals. They became the third wheel to a largely traditional two-pronged rivalry in this format between Australia and England. They crashed the party and almost finished it on their own terms. Their run can be compared to that of New Zealand’s thrilling run to the final of the 2015 Men’s World Cup in Australia. They played a brand of cricket that won over experts and naysayers, until their braveness became their downfall. Harmanpreet Kaur was the only Indian woman to be chosen to play in the Big Bash down under. She further proved that wasn’t a fluke with an innings that transcended gender, genre and sports. By the end, there will be pressure to form a domestic women’s cricket league like the IPL. Badminton, table tennis, kabaddi and football have such leagues, and there’s no reason the Indian women won’t – a giant step for girls with dreams all over the country of emulating their recent heroes.
Respect for Opposition
When Heather Knight lifted the World Cup, and Anya Shrubsole took a six-wicket haul in the final, it was hard not to respect a giant team that was playing out of their skin to defeat the underdogs. India lost, but new fans also remembered the names of the other game-changers in the World Cup – Sri Lankan batswoman Chamari Atapattu (a single-handed 178 in losing cause against Australia), England opener Tammy Beaumont (who beat Raj to the World Cup top scorer charts by one run), English smasher Natalie Sciver (the only woman to score two centuries this tournament), West Indian wunderkind Deandra Dottin, South African legbreak bowler Dane van Niekirk (the highest wicket taker – 15), one-off bowler Rajeshwari Gaekwad (her five-for against New Zealand in the do-or-die group game) and many more. The World Cup was played in the right spirit amidst swelling crowds that arguably no other World Cup before this one had the privilege of attracting. The key will be to build on this popularity and not let women’s cricket be relegated to a second-tier sport that surfaces every four years with global tournaments.