Having reached 146/3, England Women had been running away with the match in the World Cup final three years ago, at Lord’s. Jhulan Goswami had brought India Women back in a burst of hostile fast bowling. Chasing 229, India were 43/1 when Mithali Raj slipped; 138/2 when Harmanpreet Kaur holed out; and 191/3 when the collapse began. They were bowled out for 219.
At North Sound next year, India faced England again, this time in the semi-final. They collapsed again, this time after reaching 89/2. After being bowled out for 112, they got the openers quickly, but that was it. Having prepared themselves well, Amy Jones and Nat Sciver stayed on the back-foot, tucking everything to the leg side from deep inside the crease. They won inside 18 overs.
There were moments, even phases, where India were on top in both these matches. Not here, in front of an eighty-six-thousand-strong crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Alyssa Healy made her intentions clear when she stepped out to the first ball of the final, bowled by Deepti Sharma. Having conceded a four, Sharma cleverly bowled two flat, low full tosses that went for singles.
The fourth ball was faster, just outside off. It was Healy’s genius that helped her bisect the two fielders on either side of the third man, by narrow margins, and find four more runs. Till then, thus, there had been one (probably) premeditated shot, two low full tosses, and a deftly placed four. Then Shafali Verma dropped Healy at cover.
Healy finished the over with another four, got two more in the next over (Shikha Pandey’s). Then, in the fourth over, Rajeshwari Gayakwad deceived Beth Mooney in flight, induced a caught-and-bowled chance – and dropped it.
The sixes that won the match
India tried to claw back into the match. Australia reached 54 after seven overs. Rajeshwari Gayakwad had already turned one sharply to beat Healy, while Poonam Yadav found her rhythm in her first over.
At this point, Healy had scored one from five balls from Gayakwad, and two off two from Poonam – a total of three in seven in an innings of 32 in 22. Of these seven balls, she had missed one and mistimed two. Now she tried to clear cover with a half-hearted stroke off Gayakwad. On another day it could have been a catch; this one fetched her two runs.
This was when Healy could have thrown it away, as she had done in the league match. That would have opened up the final for India. They could have clawed back with a wicket or a couple of inexpensive overs. Instead, Healy lofted Gayakwad for consecutive sixes, and the spell – however brief – broke.
The next three overs went for 37. The 11th over, bowled by Pandey, for 23, including three sixes. At 114 for no loss after 11 overs, the match was all but done and dusted. India’s lone seamer had been taken apart, leaving them with little option at the death. To be fair, however, India bowled well in the last four overs, picking up three for 30 to prevent Australia from making it to 200.
Neither catch, Healy’s or Mooney’s, had been difficult. Both Verma and Gayakwad would have held on nine out of ten times. In fact, the final was the first time in the tournament that the Indian catching was not at their best. The ground fielding, of which Harmanpreet Kaur had spoken at lengths on the eve of the final, was not exemplary either.
It is easy to cite the pressure of a World Cup knockout match as a reason for the gaffes, but this Indian side had played four of these in less than three years now (including one at Lord’s) – and fielding has rarely let them down in the previous three instances.
Besides, there were shades of brilliance on the field. Smriti Mandhana flung herself to stop a booming drive from Healy in the Powerplay. The effort of the night, of course, came from Jemimah Rodrigues: she sprinted across the ground, slid, pushed the ball back – only to realise that the ball had changed its course and rolled towards the rope; still refusing to give up, Rodrigues bolted again – but all in vain.
It was not about the bowling either. On a flat track, Gayakwad and Poonam – the slowest of the bowlers – conceded 59 between them despite the carnage. Never intimidated by the power-hitting, they gave the ball air and went flat out in search of wickets. Deepti Sharma (4-0-38-2) did not return impressive figures, but her four overs included overs 1, 3, and 17.
It was really stupendous batting from the Australian openers that set the match up. Once Healy was done with her pyrokinetic adventures, Mooney stayed put till the end to prevent a collapse – for an Australian collapse was the only way India could have come back into the match. We saw that in the league match.
The Shafali wicket
The second decisive moment came in the third ball of the Indian innings. The onus was on Shafali Verma to take India as close to the Australian total as possible, but the Australians had planned well in advance. Verma has a tendency to hit on the up early in her innings, as they had figured out.
In the first ball of the first match between the sides in the Tri-Series, Verma had lofted Megan Schutt over long-on for four. In the second, she hit four fours inside the first two overs, by Jonassen and Ellyse Perry. In the final of the tournament, she slammed Perry for four and six in the first over. And in the World Cup league match she raced to 29 in 14 balls, with five fours and a six, off Schutt and Molly Strano.
Every single boundary had come off a ball where she was allowed room to use the full swing of the bat. That was something that needed to be prevented.
Verma controlled the first shot well for two. She played the second, a yorker, to cover. Then came the third, possibly the best ball one could have bowled to an in-form powerful batter who is almost guaranteed to get a boundary if she is allowed to chance her arms.
The ball was just short of a length, but neither short enough to be pulled nor wide enough to be cut. Verma had to stay back. Cramped for space, she tried to place the ball towards the third man and edged to Healy – and with that, went the match for given the asking rate and the respective forms of the batters, Verma was the only one who could have made a match out of it.
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