The fact that the BCCI announced a cash prize of Rs 50 lakh for the Indian team the day before they play the final of the World Cup tells you how big an achievement this is. As India take on England at Lord’s on Sunday, they have already made history.
Since 2010, India had not reached the semi-finals of an ICC global tournament in either format. Since 2005, they had not made the finals. In the last four ICC events, they had crashed out in the first round. So when Mithali Raj kept saying before the tournament began that the first goal was the semi-finals, it was more a case of managing the team’s own expectations rather than setting her sights low. Now in the final, India have to manage the expectations of a country.
Never before have so many paying spectators gathered to watch a women’s cricket game. Ironically, the said game will be played at the club where women were not admitted as members for more than 200 years. The dregs of patriarchy also mean that this game is not as much of a home game for England as one might imagine.
Lord’s regularly hosts the men’s county matches. But even the Middlesex county women’s team — whose home ground is Lord’s — has never played a game in front of the Lord’s Balcony. Women’s county matches are instead relegated to the adjoining Nursery ground. This means that the England players have only a sliver of home advantage; seven of them have played at Lord’s before, and the corresponding number in the Indian team is six. There could be a similar parity in the crowd support; a game involving India invariably draws a strong parochial crowd from the immigrant population. The usually inflexible Marylebone Cricket Club has even allowed the Bharat Army to bring a dhol into the stands.
So with knowledge of the conditions and crowd support being on a more even keel, it comes down to the cricket. A minor worry on that front for India is the fitness of Harmanpreet Kaur. The star of the semi-final did not field at all against Australia, and on Saturday, she cut short her net session with what seemed to be shoulder trouble. She was seen icing her right shoulder later, and did not participate in training after that.
Raj insisted that she would play though, calling it a minor niggle. "She’s just being cautious," said Raj. "(She is) taking precaution not to over-aggravate whatever little niggles she’s got."
India were lucky to be able to use the one training session they had since arriving in London on Friday. Shortly after that, the rain came down, forcing England to train indoors. But there was enough time for Jhulan Goswami to get some bowling done on one of the centre pitches, to get a feel of the famous Lord’s slope.
Put an ear to the ground, and you could feel the growing support for India. More than one Englishman told this correspondent that they were rooting for an Indian win, purely because "that is exactly what world cricket needs".
"There might be lot of changes back home if we go on to win the World Cup," said Raj. "This platform and this win will definitely give that edge for young girls to take up sport back home. Maybe, you never know, women’s IPL might be in the pipeline."
The context of the game is so important, it almost overshadows the actual contest. Both semi-finals provided spectacles that left fans weak in the knees and sore in the throat. The final could potentially be better, with two evenly-matched teams with more similarities than differences.
England’s opening batswoman Tammy Beaumont needs 18 runs to become the tournament’s top scorer, but she will be in a race with Raj, who is just 13 runs away from Ellyse Perry’s tally of 404. Also, both teams could potentially see some retirements after this game.
England’s Katherine Brunt is 32, and has played 169 internationals in a 12-year career. Jenny Gunn, who is 31, has 138 ODIs to her name. Both Brunt and Gunn have won World Cups with England though. Goswami and Raj are both 34, and are in pursuit of the one title they haven't yet won, and in turn, perhaps a fairytale finish.
The result may be hard to predict, but one thing is written in stone: People will look at women’s cricket differently, especially after this final, and not just because this is the first time Spidercam will be used in a women’s game.
This tournament has seen the kind of fielding and batting that has silenced the doubters who said the women’s game lacks power, and is being acknowledged as a spectacle worth lightening one’s wallet for. And India are a part of this showpiece event, of this transformation. They are part of history, even before the final begins, looking to write a new chapter.