The Australian women’s cricket team rarely loses. Since they were crowned champions in Mumbai in 2013, the women in yellow had only been on the losing side on nine of the 43 matches, a winning percentage of 78. To put that winning ratio in context, not even Ricky Ponting’s great ODI team from 2003-2007 had a percentage as high as the women. To add to that, the Australians have won the World Cup for a historic six times, one more than their male counterparts.
Their records speak volumes about the dynasty they have created in the women’s game. The Southern Stars, as they are referred to in Australia, have always set the precedence, challenged and then blown teams off the paddock.
Much of the same was expected against India, a team on the rise, but still trailing the mighty Australians in most facets of the game.
India were the undisputed underdogs, the Australians the red-hot favourites. Only the optimistic fans truly believed an upset was on the cards. The situation resembled the Indian men’s team against the almighty XI led by Ponting in that dominant green and gold era.
The semi-final at Derby against the most destructive batting unit featuring Meg Lanning, Ellyse Perry, Alex Blackwell and Alyssa Healy was always going to be a tough task. Basically to win, everything had to run to the script.
Generally when you are against the odds, the tendency is for the fear factor to increase and the self belief to decrease. Underdogs tend to get overawed by the occasion and the focus shifts on the opposition rather than yourself. In such circumstances, leadership becomes crucial. The leader or the captain needs to instill conviction and focus on the positives.
In the lead-up to the match, India’s captain Mihtali Raj was inspirational and assertive. In the press, when asked about the potent Australian team, she calmly said “we beat them recently in Hobart”. Raj was not pessimistic at all. There were no lines such as "it’s going to be tough, they have great players, they are world champions", instead she had shifted the focus on how well her team has played and how well they can play.
All that positive energy instilled in the team was carried out in the field. On a pitch that had been sweating under the covers for six hours, Raj backed her team’s batting on a moist wicket that was always going to dry quickly under the sun. Weaker minds might have persisted with the safe option of fielding first.
Turn the clock back to 2003, and many of the Indian great players still regret not batting first against that unconquerable Ponting’s side at the Wanderers in the World Cup final.
To beat the odds and the champions, a team has to play to their strengths. Raj and her teammates had devised a conscious plan. It was about them and not the opposition. They were not going to get intimidated by any individual or their respective 11 opponents.
Perhaps it was that clear mindset that allowed Harmanpreet Kaur to produce one of the greatest innings in the ODI format. The talented player from Moga, in the state of Punjab, dismantled the Australian bowling like her childhood hero Virender Sehwag had done on so many occasions.
Throughout the tournament, Australian part-time spinners Ashleigh Gardner and Jess Jonassen had managed to strangle hold the opposition. Harmanpreet knew all too well from her experience in the Women's Big Bash League that the pair of them were mere batswomen who bowled, and had to be exposed. Harmanpreet ran riot against them and constantly sent their balls beyond the boundary. The mighty were starting to fall. The hunters were being hunted. The underdogs were starting to bite.
The odds had turned. Suddenly, the world champions started to focus on India rather than their own batting. Doubts started to creep in and the Australian batswomen played with muddled minds. India, led by Harmanpreet, had exposed the chinks in their armour and did it in a ruthless manner. They kept chipping away and the might of the Australians finally succumbed to pressure — something that is unusual for a team with a touch of invincibility about them.
This match was won against all odds. This victory was against the colossal Australians that rarely lose. This was Harmanpreet’s day out in the sun, the day she stamped her authority as one of the greatest strikers of a cricket ball. It was like the time her fellow Punjabi Harbahjan Singh had defied all odds to rattle the Australians in that memorable 2001 Test series.
That series had changed the fortunes of Indian cricket. This women’s team is no different; after brushing past the reigning champions, they not only believe but don’t fear either. They have changed the way people in India view cricket.
No longer are girls dreaming of meeting Virat Kohli or a Rohit Sharma, but instead are inspired by Harmanpreet or Raj or a Jhulam Goswami. The Mithali-led outfit is on the verge of achieving something special. Come Sunday, underdogs or not, home team or away team, win or lose, they have already written their own script and started a legacy.