England’s female cricketers are world champions, and they’ve done it with a swagger and a smile. Phil Walker was at a rocking Lord’s to see a piece of history.
“Oh. My. God. We’ve just won the f___ing World Cup!”
It doesn’t matter which England cricketer said those words to AOC on the Lord’s outfield, at the end of a match that will change not just the lives of every woman who played in it but the whole complexion of cricket in this country. Because she was speaking for all of us.
Rarely can Lord’s have served up such a collective triumph. An HQ sell-out for a dream final, concluding a tournament that had shed its anxieties to deliver two cracking semi-finals, a new shot (Natmeg), a new superstar (Harmanpreet) and a deeper place in the game’s consciousness. It can sometimes feel a little hackneyed talking about sport in terms of inspiring new audiences and next generations. Not here.
So we can forgive the odd post-match swear. After the show, no one really knew what to say. How to sum up the inestimable? As so often, Clare Connor gave it the best go. This thing belongs to everybody, she said. To Lydia Greenway and Charlotte Edwards and Enid Bakewell; to Eileen Ash, 105 years young, who rang the bell this morning in her 1934 tour blazer; to the backroom staff and the marketing folks; to the people who turned up in their thousands and screamed themselves deaf; to Rachael Heyhoe Flint, whose presence, said Connor, could be felt everywhere today. There were tears in her eyes as she spoke. This here was a life’s work, sealed by an in-dipping yorker bowled from the Pavilion End, from where, in 1973, Heyhoe Flint first had the audacity to organise a world tournament and lead England into it.
It was a far from perfect performance by England, as Anya Shrubsole, Woman of the Match for an inspired spell at the death, was quick to admit. Players were visibly wrestling with the scale of it all, while somehow maintaining their smile. England’s innings of 228-7 was a twitchy affair: Tammy Beaumont toe-ended a full toss, Lauren Winfield got bowled round her legs, Heather Knight swept and missed a straight one. “We’re not the perfect team,” said Shrubsole, “but what we’ve shown is that we’ve got real resilience.”
There was magic too, of course. One mini-passage seemed to typify the quality that we’ve seen over the last few weeks. India are chasing. The game is knife-edged. We’re in the 36th. Alex Hartley – she of the potty mouth and old-beyond-her-years left-arm spinners – is taking it. She’s just dismissed Harmanpreet Kaur for a fabulously cocky 51, and she’s staying around the wicket. First ball is airy, elusive. Veda Krishnamurthy twinkle-toes down the track and punches it wide of mid-off. Jenny Gunn, the longest-serving current international in English cricket, tears around from long-on and dives on it, her left foot flirting with the boundary board. Two runs. Second ball is an inch short. Krishnamurthy check-punches into the covers but Knight is there to swoop and in one motion underarm-flick it back to Hartley, who gathers it clean on the half-volley. No run. The third is a little flatter but Krishnamurthy is coming down again, smothering the turn to thread a drive between short cover and wide mid-off. A chorus of “Shot!” rings out around the press box. A pressbox, incidentally, that’s never rocked like it rocked today.
India kept on dancing, England kept on believing. When Kaur was motoring, the game looked to be swinging to India, and to the tens of millions watching from cricket’s big house. Hartley’s intervention (“Heather said you always get the big dogs, and I got her next ball!”) changed the tone of the innings, but nothing felt decisive. Here was a seesawing game, with more than a few echoes of England’s semi-final against South Africa. Cricket has been served well by England’s knockout tussles.
And it will live on. With India eight wickets down and needing 14 to win, me and two others nipped outside the press box to get the full surround-sound experience. Louder than bombs it was. Stirringly, everybody, inside and out, appeared to be losing their cool, marbles, inhibitions and reservations, as the fare – so tight and taut for so much of the day – suddenly turned operatic. A messy run-out swung it back to England. With one wicket needed, Gunn, the least flappable character in the team and the architect of that nerveless cameo in the semi, dropped one of the easiest catches ever offered at Lord’s. As panto-horror gasps rang around the ground, a half-smile crept across her face. Next ball, Shrubsole screamed through the last of India’s hopes and opened her arms to the heavens.
I’ve been coming here for a long time now. It’s never, ever sounded like this. And, look, up there on the gantry among the cameras and wires, where we were standing, it really was quite windy. And sometimes the blustery conditions can infect the tear ducts, causing a little moistening around the eyes. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.