The sun had shoved the rain clouds far away. The delayed start because of the gloomy weather had been pushed away from the memory lane. Derbyshire was now bright. On the Derby County Cricket Ground that had been embraced by sunshine, Mithali Raj and Veda Krishnamurthy had their eyes shine with mischief as they relaxed on the chairs behind the boundary cushion. Flanked by teammates on either side, the duo broke into an impromptu dance.
Mithali had been dismissed long ago. Veda was under her helmet, waiting for her chance with the willow. Out in the middle, a spot in the World Cup final was being fought for. Harmanpreet Kaur’s century had kept India in the contest against Australia. Australia were defending champions. They had walked over India in the group game. India were up against an unimpressive record against Australia and history. But the intensity of the situation could not douse Mithali and Veda’s sparks that had lit up an already radiant Derby ground.
Even the opportunity to have their first shot at the title in 12 years thanks to the platform Harmanpreet had laid till then failed to engross their minds into painting the possible outcomes. The dance continued.
The Indian men’s team dances too. Virat Kohli’s Gangnam style jig after the team had been crowned champions of the 2013 Champions Trophy is one for the photographs. But, the Men in Blue usually dance after they have triumphed in a fancy event like the Champions Trophy.
The Women in Blue did not wait for a reason to dance. They were the bright in a gloomy English town. They were the fun in a game that searched for meaning. They were the catalyst for the revival of a game that struggled for survival. And though they endured a painful end to a fairytale campaign, with the elusive trophy in sight, they had stimulated the rebirth of women’s cricket in the country.
Mithali’s team may have lost to England in the final, but had won India over. It had gifted the country with a new bunch of heroes. It had gifted the young cricketers in India, girls and boys alike, new players to idolize, new stories to follow and new dreams to conquer.
For starters, the vibrant World Cup campaign robbed the world of a repeat of Mithali’s ‘Do you ask them who their favourite female cricketer is?’ Because if asking the women cricketers who their favourite male counterpart was irrelevant earlier, it has been driven to extinction now.
Over five years ago, when the Australian women visited India for a bilateral series, the toss in an ODI at the Wankhede Stadium was conducted before time, and more importantly, without a match referee. Back then, a couple of reporters, a handful of local officials and the groundsmen were the only people present at the time of the goof up. But such a lapse will be unpardonable today. For, the nation has woken up by a revolution in the women’s game. And, from now on, an entire country will be watching. Not only will the country watch out for such lapses, but they will come and watch the women’s game in greater numbers.
Women’s cricket may not overshadow men’s cricket, but it will compete with the more celebrated obverse. And for once, India will one day be a cricket-mad nation in the true sense of the term. That day, a young cricketer in the country will look for inspiration among the Mithalis and Harmanpreets apart from the Kohlis and Dhonis – sans comparisons.
Mithali has been around on the international circuit for 18 years. Her calmness has been around for 18 years. She only grew calmer as the pressure rose along with the number of eyeballs on her and her girls over the last month. Apart from a jig on the fence, she used the skipping rope and read books while she waited for her turn to charm the audience with her bat in the middle – there are few cover drives more soothing on the eye than the Indian captain’s. She has wowed the world with them consistently. After all, she has more runs on the planet than any other woman cricketer.
Mithali’s dance partner Veda prefers the beast mode when she walks out to bat. She may joke around, not thinking about her stint in the middle, while she waits in the hut, but fights fire with more threatening fire once she takes guard. Basically, she goes boom from ball one. If it is her day, the Indian supporters could be in for a feast of boundaries. Either way, she is the entertainer of the pack – while batting or not.
Harmanpreet is the other girl who can swallow-up an attack single-handedly. She numbed the Australians with a barrage of shots that parked themselves in the crowd. She had bullied a team that was known to oppress opponents. But unlike Veda, she blends class with her aggression. Her straight drive, among the straightest in the game, is a testimony to how fashionable she can make batting appear.
But before Harmanpreet walks out to bat at number three, the contrasting combo of Punam Raut and Smriti Mandhana has usually wreaked havoc with the minds of the opponents. Punam is short, Smriti is tall. Punam is right-handed, Smriti is left-handed. Punam is difficult to dislodge after she has settled down, Smriti does not allow the bowlers to settle down. Punam brings along a sense of control to the game, Smriti ensures the opposition loses control as she unleashes her assault, which she has prepared for by singing her way to the middle.
Smriti has a song for every time she walks out to bat. Sushma Verma has the audacity to stand at the iconic Lord’s balcony and hum while the final is contested out in the square. With the same audacity she appeals and yaps away from behind the stumps to unsettle the batters.
At 19, Deepti Sharma is unsettled when an angry Harmanpreet admonishes her at the top of her voice for a wrongly judged single. Her eyes moisten, and she needs a hug from her senior partner before she can continue to bat. But she refuses to even blink, let alone buckle, when under pressure from the opposition. With both bat and ball, she plays as if she has been for the entire of her 19 years of existence.
Hunting in pair is a luxury in cricket. Rajeshwari Gayakwad combined with Poonam Yadav to give India that pair in the last three games. Rajeshwari suffocated the batters with no room to move. Poonam, on the hand, would invite the batters to move around in order to get to her loopy leg-spinners. In fact, Poonam’s delivery would appear to hang in the air for so long that Samuel Beckett’s wait for Godot was likelier to end than the batter’s for the ball, if she wouldn’t move towards it.
If lack of pace does not trouble the women with the willow enough, India has the pace to hand them a cold welcome too. Shikha Pandey may not be India’s most successful fast bowler. But with the bandana on, when she stares at the batters and lets out a war cry, she can dismiss players mentally before they are actually dismissed.
If the mental disintegration from Shikha won’t get the batter, the genius of Jhulan Goswami invariably will. Jhulan’s the only other member, apart from Mithali, to have played in the 2005 and 2017 World Cup finals. The consistency with which she squares up the batters with her high-arm action and movement is a reason why she has the most scalps to her name.
This bunch of 11 donned the India colours in the semi-final and final. But, there were four more crafty cricketers who played a part in India’s most successful World Cup campaign.
In fact, there are 1000s more back home. They are miles away from London, where the Cup slipped out of India’s grasp. They have all been inspired by these girls, who were on track to be world champions for the majority of the summit clash against the hosts. All they now need is a glitzy tournament like the IPL to shoot them in the galaxy of the Mithalis, Ellyse Perrys and Sarah Taylors. So that come New Zealand 2021, India is better prepared to lift the Cup.