“Our first step would be to get into the semis”, said Mithali Raj, just before her team departed for the Women’s World Cup in England. Despite India’s strong ODI performances in the past couple of years, Raj’s first priority was clear: to make the top four.
It is a clique that India have fallen out of in recent years. Ever since India joined the women’s cricket fold in the 1970s, they have been part of the 'Big Four' - the top teams in the world, along with Australia, England and New Zealand. In every World Cup they played in, except 2013, they have remained a part of that quartet, rising as high as second in the 2005 edition and third in 2009. But since then, it has been a slow slide down the mountain in global tournaments. The 'Big Four' were taking on a new shape, as India’s results since 2010 show:
2010 Women's World T20: Lost in the semi-final.
2012 Women's World T20: Exit in first round. Failed to make semi-final.
2013 Women’s World Cup: Exit in first round. Failed to make super six.
2014 Women's World T20: Exit in first round. Failed to make semi-final.
2016 Women's World T20: Exit in first round. Failed to make semi-final.
So the semi-finals are certainly India’s first priority in this World Cup; they cannot make an attempt to climb the Everest without setting up a base camp first.
'Everest' is not a word chosen loosely. India have played eight ODI World Cups, and still have no silverware to show for it, making them the team to play the most editions without winning the title. In addition, they have played five Women's World T20s, and have only gotten past the first round in two of them. They have never played a Women's World T20 final.
Raj has played in five of India’s eight campaigns, and Jhulan Goswami in four. The two are the titans of Indian cricket, and legends of the global game in their own right; most of the current squad grew up idolising them. Yet both want the one win that could galvanise women’s cricket in India like no individual performance ever could.
"We want to win the World Cup because it would be a revolution kind of a thing for Indian women's cricket," Raj said at a press conference before leaving for England. "It would give a big impetus for young girls to take up the sport."
The omens are favourable. India have won 17 of their last 18 ODIs leading into the World Cup, including a whitewash of the formidable West Indies, and four wins against South Africa, the most talented team of the bottom four. India have won four of their last five series, including winning the World Cup Qualifier in Sri Lanka. That win was particularly important, as India chased down a record 245, without Raj and Goswami.
It is the emergence of the inexperienced players that is most encouraging. Harmanpreet Kaur has shown she can close out tight games. Deepti Sharma and Punam Raut put on a world record stand of 320 against Ireland last month, opening the batting. Shikha Pandey’s 26 wickets had much to do with India’s 16-game streak. The talent is undeniable, the ability was always there; the biggest test now, is the pressure of a big tournament.
Ten of the squad of 15 have never played a World Cup game before. Three of India’s games will be televised, including the opening encounter against England. The prize money is 10 times more than it was for the 2013 edition, and the best players in the world are their competition. There can be no bigger stage, and the spotlight has never been greater. Everest is within sight, the clouds have parted, and the sun is shining down on the steep path. It can inspire awe in even the most experienced climbers. Awe, and a little dread.
“It’s a World Cup, and I’m sure there are a few seniors who are already aware of the expectations and the pressure one faces during a World Cup”, said Raj before departure. She emphasised how important it would be for those with World Cup experience to share that experience with those who didn’t have any. “As seniors, we can be around them, giving them that cushioning; we’re there to take up half the pressure that they face.”
"I believe we reinvent the world in each generation," said Reinhold Messner, legendary mountaineer, and the first man to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. India’s new generation of cricketers, led by the veterans, have what it takes to launch an assault on this peak, never before scaled by their predecessors.
But India, in particular Raj and Goswami, playing perhaps their last World Cup, would be well served by thinking they are playing just another tournament. “It’s a long tour, I want the girls to take one match at a time”, echoed Raj.
Look up at the mountain, and the scale of their task may deter them. Look down, put one foot in front of the other, and they could well summit.
Snehal Pradhan is a former India cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She hosts the series ‘Cricket How To’ on YouTube, and tweets @Snehal Pradhan.