It seemed like a long con. Everything up until the first ball seemed to be in England’s favour. Derby was a picture of English conditions at dawn: dreary, chilly and overcast. England coach Marc Robinson said the wicket had “a tinge of green”. Some rain was forecast during the day. There was strong crowd support for the home team even at the toss, dwarfing the small but noisy Indian fans.
Symbolically, the dhols at the gate could not be heard once you got to the ground.
Then England captain Heather Knight won the toss, and gleefully chose to bowl first. India, in a big ticket World Cup game, on TV, would have to see off any early movement, in the air and off the pitch.
It was almost as if everything till that point had lulled England into a sense of confidence, of ascendancy. All that was swept away once India’s openers started batting.
Smriti Mandhana pulled her first ball for four as if she had grown up on county wickets. In the next over she punched a short ball through the covers for another boundary. The following ten overs seemed to be a video of those two shots stuck on repeat, as Katherine Brunt kept bowling short. Raut played four sedate overs at the other end, but when the batters finally changed ends in the ninth over, Mandhana greeted Anya Shrubsole’s first ball to her with another pull to deep mid-wicket.
She and Raut motored along to 113 for no loss in the 24th over, when - out of nowhere - they took the batting powerplay, forcing Anya Shrubsole to come back into the attack. Her first ball was carted for six by Mandhana, and she and Raut took 20 runs from the over.
Although Mandhana fell 10 short of a 100 in her first World Cup game, she had set the tone.
“Half of the overs in the 1st innings were played by the openers”, said Mithali Raj after the game. “If you have a solid opening partnership, your middle order will come exactly when it is supposed to come and carry on from there. That makes it much easier to post 250 and above.”
After Mandhana’s dismissal, Raj and Raut batted much like they would in a 20 over game without the six over powerplay: consolidation, and then gradual and controlled combustion. They scored at 5.7 RPO till the 40th over, as Raut got out for 86 off 134 balls after benefitting from three dropped catches.
Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur then took 74 runs off the last 10 overs. Raj favoured the mid-wicket region, and batted till the last ball, dismissed for silken 71 off 73, having claimed the world record for most consecutive fifties (seven) as well as most half centuries in ODIs(47).
The occasion was supposed to get to India, instead it seemed to get to England, who lost two quick wickets. But after a sluggish start – they were 75 for 3 in the first 20 overs - captain Heather Knight started to express herself, and was matched shot for shot by Fran Wilson, who only played because of an injury to England’s regular opener, Lauren Winfied.
Even after Knight fell for 39, Wilson used switch hits and regular sweeps to good effect to disrupt India’s bowling plans. In the powerplay, she almost single handedly took 47 runs in those five overs, and nearly brought England’s asking rate down from eight to a run a ball.
This was where India clawed back into the game, through a skill they have a poor track record in: fielding. India’s fielding had started off on a sour note, with Deepti Sharma spilling a tough diving chance at short fine leg in the second over. In between there was some brilliant diving stops and indifferent ground fielding, India missed a stumping, and there were two dropped catches in the outfield in towards the end of the game. But the game also swung back towards India in the field.
First Knight was done in by a direct hit from Harmanpreet Kaur, who quickly got the ball off her own bowling. And after Wilson and Brunt put on 62 for the sixth wicket, Deepti Sharma threw down the stumps from point to send Brunt back. Later, Mona Meshram at square leg ensured a suicidal run from Jenny Gunn remained exactly that. But in between those two came the turning point: Wilson’s dismissal.
Ekta Bisht collected a straight drive and flicked the ball on to the stumps at the bowlers end, where Wilson dived to reverse her start. Unfortunately, her bat bounced up and hung in the air above the crease; she had to walk back for 81 off 75. That was the end of the English challenge, and India registered a 35-run win.
The win against a higher ranked side was more than just one good game though. It gives India a little bit of insurance against an upset in a long tournament, and momentum going into their next game against the West Indies on 29 June. More than that, it was heartening to see the batting, and in part, the fielding, deliver a big win for India, who have traditionally relied on the bowling to pull them through.
In the bigger scale of things, this game is even more important. This was the first of seven televised games India will play.
And the power of television manifests only after five to ten years. Personally for me, watching Jhulan Goswami bowl on television fuelled my dream of becoming a fast bowler. Years from now, we might hear about the next generation of Indian female cricketers who were inspired watching Saturday’s win.