Adam Collins reports from Derby as he witnesses one of the greatest innings of all time
Mithali Raj says she is speechless. From eight days ago despairing at her lot, to now packing for Lord’s. But she’s not. The Indian captain always has plenty to say. Invariably they are authentic words, articulately delivered. She understands what this win means: “A revolution for women’s cricket in India.” It’s that alright. And you better believe it will be televised.
Like any revolution, it requires a protagonist to capture hearts and minds. Enter Harmanpreet Kaur. Her unbeaten 171 combined power, anger, skill, belligerence and poise – often within seconds. A 115-ball stay Raj dubbed the best an Indian has played. But why stop there? Consider the stage, the opposition and the state of the match when it clicked. How could there have been a more significant hand ever played in women’s cricket?
Each time she advanced down and unfurled her limbs those gathered held their breath. Each ball became an event. Then there reached a stage when the outcome was almost foretold, striking so well it was more a surprise when the boundary wasn’t reached or cleared. Australia had no answer, and who could blame them. “We needed to stop the haemorrhaging,” their coach Matthew Mott lamented. “And we went to custard.”
For Raj, she gets to party like it’s 2005. Then, her side (yes, she was still leading it 12 years ago) shocked New Zealand in the semi. “Hardly anybody knew that India had qualified for the final,” she recalled. “They were all too involved with men’s cricket so nobody really paid attention.” This time, to take one crude measure, in the space of a month Raj’s twitter following has swelled from four figures to six. They are paying attention, alright.
Returning to Harmanpreet, hers was a World Cup of unfulfilled promise until last weekend. From the adulation of prime-time TV during the Women’s Big Bash League last December, there was something amiss. To the extent that Raj, convinced they were on the road to being bundled out at the group stage, singled out her malaise.
Raj also noted on the eve of this match they had beaten Australia in only the “odd match” across the journey (nine in 43 attempts), so they had to “give more” to take it to them. Early, that didn’t feel destined. Young gun Smitri Mandhana fell to ill-discipline within an over. Punam Raut, century maker against Australia last time, did likewise soon after.
Together, Raj and Harmanpreet were doing it tough, barely ticking the board at three an over. The innings had a familiar feel at halfway; the defending champions were turning the screws. Harmanpreet went 27 balls for nine runs at one stage.
Then Raj was bowled. Her scathing critique last week centred around colleagues’ inability to step up when she falls. Harmanpreet had a point to prove. A free hit got her moving in the right direction. A half-century, in a pedestrian enough 64 balls, next. But there was no real sign of the impending explosion; an unforgettable 12-over burst of carnage to the finish line.
No one was spared, but the spinners – until the semi going at a tidy 3.75 an over – copped it worst. Jess Jonassen went over midwicket. Kristen Beams was lashed through cover. Jonassen again launched over long-on then pulled. Into the 90s she went. Beams was sailing back over the midwicket rope soon as she returned.
Harmanpreet’s century brought chaos of another kind. Two runs were taken, both she and accomplice Deepti Sharma were diving for their ground. The response? Throwing her equipment to berate her partner for lax calling. Never mind a celebration, she was fuming that this could have been the end. It was ugly, but telling sentiment: she was only getting started.
Ashleigh Gardner, so frugal until now, had 23 taken off an over, punctuated by a slog sweep that would clear any boundary, and washing it down an inside-out cover drive. The posh side copped more of a battering when Lanning shifted an extra fielder there, Harmanpreet bisecting the ring to demonstrate total control.
Elyse Villani being called on for her biddable seamers inside the powerplay said it all. 19 came from that misadventure, even if it did buy Deepti’s wicket. 137 had been added together in barely 14 overs, 106 via Harmanpreet’s blade. By now, she had raised the bat again with her third 50 coming in an entirely ridiculous 17 balls.
Done? Not before banking consecutive sixes for a second time, bludgeoning Jonassen. Australia’s tidiest bowler had gone for nine an over. When it was finished, seven sixes and 20 boundaries made up 71 per cent of Harmanpreet’s runs. Her final 121 coming in 50 balls.
Charlotte Edwards announced, stunned as anyone: “I’ve never seen [Australia] so rattled.” Losing three wickets by the time their reply had reached 21, they were effectively finished. Not least for Lanning being one of those, bowled by Jhulan Goswami for an eight-ball duck with the most delightful away-ducker. She, like Raj, is another warrior who remembers 2005 well and now gets a precious second chance at glory.
Villani and Perry’s resuscitation of the innings gave a hint of breaking Indian hearts, the former dancing and sweeping to 75. But when she holed out and Perry couldn’t convert a sixth consecutive half-century the collapse followed, reading 5-29. Alex Blackwell mounted a defiant final attempt, worth 90 in 56 balls. On any other day, that would have been matchwinning. Not this time, the last to fall when Australia required 37 from two overs, Raj for the fourth time jagging a wicket upon making a change.
Australia know they fly home to tough questions. “We’ll have to face the music,” Mott said. But that’s for then. This is India’s moment. Raj’s smile in response to a question about Lord’s said it all. Living the dream in her final World Cup outing.
The dream finale, too. It may not be the marquee England/Australia tryst, but if India can shock England, women’s cricket may never be the same. See their response to the men’s side winning the inaugural 2007 World T20 – a little thing called the IPL. “An opportunity for the Indian team to make it big,” is Raj’s assessment. “Whoever thinks of making cricket a career will always be thankful to this bunch.” That they will. One in particular, a revolutionary called Harmanpreet.