India will face England in the final of the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup and they will be heavily dependent on their skipper Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur.
Her backlift is a thing of beauty, her strike as clean as they come. Just as Harmanpreet Kaur wound up for each delivery en route to an explosive 171 against a stunned Australia, India are peaking at just the right moment heading into Sunday’s World Cup final.
It was a quiet start for Harmanpreet, who managed just 77 runs in five innings. Some players need gentle encouragement, a confidence boost, or a few half-volleys in the nets to get back in form. Others need a rocket.
Skipper Mithali Raj knows better than most what makes her players tick. Mithali opted for the latter, publicly admonishing her batsmen following their loss to Australia in the group stages.
Harmanpreet Kaur needs to “contribute in a way that it complements the team,” lamented Raj, with the prospect of a group-stage exit looming. Harmanpreet heard, and Harmanpreet did. Her 60 off 90 balls in a must-win tie against New Zealand was the warm-up act. Her 171* off 115 balls in the semifinal against Australia was something quite extraordinary.
Six months ago India’s women didn’t have their own Twitter account. On Thursday, it went into meltdown as the likes of Kapil Dev, Yuvraj Singh and Sachin Tendulkar hailed an “unbelievable knock”.
That they, and many others, were able to witness such an innings in itself is testament to the strides that women’s cricket, and women’s cricket in India, has made in recent years.
For India, their path to Lord’s has been a long time coming. Denied a chance to play there versus England in 2014 when rain intervened, only a handful of the current squad have ever had the experience of doing so.
Luckily, those that have, have thrived. Punam Raut, Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur, all set to play on Sunday, each scored half-centuries as India toppled England in a 2012 ODI.
It was an upset then, and it will be an upset on Sunday, should India prevail. Despite India’s opening match win over England at Derby just weeks ago, England have powered through the tournament since, unbeaten in their last seven matches.
India’s journey, on the other hand, has been more eventful. While inconsistency might be India’s burden, a habit of performing — and upsetting — on the big stage, is fast becoming their trademark.
England know full well the perils of underestimating India. When a newly professional England side surprisingly lost the sole Test to India at Wormsley three years ago, they never quite recovered.
That loss paved the way for the eventual resignation of England’s talismanic captain Charlotte Edwards, and Raj, who surpassed Edwards’ record for the highest ODI runs, has a chance to go one better once more.
With a record global television audience of more than 50 million in the group stages and a sell-out final at Lord’s, India’s women cricketers are creating their own legacy.
However, just as former England captain Nasser Hussain quipped, on seeing pictures of Mithali Raj reading his autobiography before the Australia game, that there was “not much in that book about how to win a World Cup semi”, it is to India’s men that Mithali might look for inspiration.
When the men won the World Cup in 1983 and the World T20 in 2007, both victories marked a turning point.
The 1983 win saw the start of a financial investment into the sport no country has matched since, while the 2007 victory led to the launch of the world’s most successful domestic tournament — the IPL.
Following Thursday’s victory, Raj spoke of the impact that Australia’s women’s Big Bash League has had on Harmanpreet.
If India win, their next hero might not need look so far afield, for a true turning point could, and should, pave the way for a women’s IPL, in India’s own back yard. Watch this space.
The author is a sports broadcaster and writer for the BBC, and a former Middlesex Women captain.