It has been a good year for India Women © Getty Images
It has been a good year for India Women © Getty Images

Mithali Raj read Rumi in the dugout as Smriti Mandhana went on a rampage. When Smriti got out, she picked up her bat, walked out in a floppy hat, and waltzed her way to a beautiful 71 not out. That was India Women’s opening match of the World Cup, against England.

Less than a month later, when Harmanpreet Kaur played the greatest innings by an Indian in the history of World Cup cricket across genders, Mithali looked happy in the dugout. She was busy synchronising a dance move with Veda Krishnamurthy. As the camera zoomed on to her, she flashed a smile of embarrassment, but could not conceal her happiness.

Three days later India collapsed spectacularly in the final at Lord’s against Anya Shrubsole. Mithali had got run out at a crucial juncture, but had refused to take her pads off. She waited hopefully in the dugout as one wicket followed another. Then Shikha Pandey lost her nerve and got run out, and Mithali knew it was all over. She resigned to it, peeling her pads off, as India were bowled out in another 5 minutes.

Nothing epitomised India’s World Cup campaign more than the three images. India have reached the final before, but there was an unmistakable swagger in the side this time.

There was also telecast back home. Live streaming and superfast internet enabled viewers to follow matches from anywhere. Social media gave them the boost they needed and deserved but never had.

Thus, Smriti suddenly became a household name after she started the World Cup with those two blitzes. The glasses had been replaced, and her good looks, combined with her batting prowess, made him the crush of the younger generation.

The above paragraph may not seem relevant, but it actually is. The girls suddenly stepped out of ignominy. They were now familiar enough to qualify as heartthrobs.

But let us return to the cricket. India scored 281 for 3 in their first match with Punam Raut, Smriti, and Mithali all crossing 70 and Harman throwing her bat around towards the end. Mithali set a new world record by scoring 7 consecutive ODI fifties. Fran Wilson later provided a scare, but India hit back to clutch a match that hung in the balance.

How did they win the match? Smriti held a quick one at slip; Harman threw the stumps down with a direct hit; Deepti Sharma — we will return to the teenager shortly — pulled off another spectacular throw from point to break the all-important sixth stand; Ekta Bisht got a run out from a direct hit as well; Mona Meshram got Jenny Gunn with another throw; and Veda, coming on as substitute, dived forward from deep mid-wicket to end the innings.

Yes, six of the ten wickets were outcomes of spectacular fielding efforts. You cannot win against that.

West Indies were no match for India. They were not expected to be, for they had been whitewashed 0-3 by India last year. Here, they were strangled by the spinners and finished on 183 for 8. Smriti got the hundred she deserved against England, adding to her heartthrob coefficient.

For a while Pakistan fought harder than they had done in the Qualifier. Mithali promptly promoted Sushma Verma to 7. It was a bold move: coming into the World Cup, Sushma had scored 13 runs from 22 matches at 1.85. Here she got a crucial 33, lifting India from 111 for 6 to 169 for 9. Sushma, custodian of the camera they used to take team ‘group-fies’ and ace wicketkeeper, finally delivered with the bat.

Ekta had taken 5 for 8 in the Qualifier against Pakistan. She now took 5 for 18, pumping her fist and testing her larynx to the core with every celebration. Pakistan collapsed to 74.

Deepti finally delivered with bat against Sri Lanka, top-scoring with 78. Mithali (53) got into the act as well. India won by 16 runs in the end, but Sri Lanka were barely ever in the hunt.

India’s golden run finally came to an end against South Africa who piled up 273 for 9 and bowled out India for 173. Deepti stood amidst the ruins, top-scoring for India.

India were 166 for 1 at one point against Australia. It good looked on paper, but they were already in the 41st over. As a result everyone perished in an attempt to slog everything once Punam Raut (106) and Mithali (69) got out. They finished on 226 for 7 and lost by 8 wickets.

The must-win match against New Zealand was set up by Mithali’s magnificent 109. She showed more urgency than before: her strike rate of 89 was way superior to the 61 against Australia. Harman got 60 as well, but it was really Veda’s whirlwind 45-ball 70 that made the difference. Then Rajeshwari Gayakwad, replacement of Ekta, took 5 for 15 to run through the New Zealand power-hitters, bowling them out for 79.

The semi-final, of course, was defined by Harman. No adjective can do justice to Harman’s incredible onslaught that day at Derby. Nobody gave India a chance, especially after they were thwarted by Meg Lanning’s girls in the league match.

But the Australian superstars fell apart, one by one, as Harman drove and slog-swept and hoicked them — all on one leg, for she was limping — to every corner of the ground. The Australians looked clueless, but they could hardly be blamed, for they had seen nothing like this. No one has.

It was the kind of performance India needed to knock Australia out of the World Cup. Even if one takes the power, the grandeur, the impact, everything out of the innings, one cannot ignore the numbers: 171 not out, in 115 balls, in a 42-over match, with 20 fours and 7 sixes.

Alex Blackwell scored at a faster pace (161; Harman batted at 149), mind you, in pursuit of 282. But she got 90, not 171. That, and Elyse Villani’s 75, could not turn the tables as the Indians kept pegging away at the wickets.

A tournament of this magnitude deserved a final of the highest order. South Africa had tested England to the hilt, conceding defeat with only 2 balls to spare. Sarah Taylor and Natalie Sciver threatened to take the match away when India’s most experienced bowler rose to the challenge.

Sarah edged one to Sushma. The next ball was special, befitting of Fran, India’s tormentor in the league match. It is never easy to get a leg-before if one bowled from the corner of the crease, but this was Jhulan Goswami, no less: the yorker, fast and straight, trapped Fran in front. Jhulan got Natalie shortly afterwards. From 146 for 3 in the 33rd over, England could only crawl to 228 for 7.

Punam led the charge for India. Mithali got run out horribly, almost forgetting to dive as the frame stood eerily frozen in time. Harman got 51 to put India back on track. When Punam finally fell for 86, India needed another 38 in 43 balls. They had 6 wickets in hand.

Then the errors began. Deepti, who had batted so calmly throughout the tournament, was held back. Sushma was bowled attempting a sweep. Then Veda went for an inexplicable slog and holed out, Jhulan was undone by a straight ball, and suddenly India were 7 down.

None of this mattered to Deepti, of course, who got runs with the composure of a batter twice her age. Unfortunately, pressure got to Shikha, who ran halfway down the pitch for no rhyme or reason and was run out. It took Anya 4 balls to round things up in the final over.

Was it the pressure of playing in front of a rare full house at Lord’s? Perhaps. Perhaps they would have won on another day. They lost the final, but they did better than what was expected of them in the tournament. They came within touching distance of the title. They had also managed to “win hearts”, that mysterious concept every cricket fan and pundit seems to go gaga over.

The journey before

India started the year with the World Cup Qualifier. There were some easy matches. Devika Vaidya (89) gave them a 104-run win over South Africa. Thailand were bundled out for 55. Thirushkamini (113*) and Deepti (89) added 174 against Ireland and India won by 125 runs. Poonam Yadav (5 for 19) bowled out Zimbabwe for 60.

India scored 205 for 8 against South Africa, the team to beat in the tournament. Shikha (4 for 34) and Ekta (3 for 22) then ensured a 46-run win. Mona and Mithali thrashed Bangladesh around to pull off a 9-wicket win. And as mentioned before, Ekta bowled out Pakistan for 67.

All this was achieved without Jhulan and Smriti, both of whom missed the tournament. And Mithali missed the final, which meant India took field without three of her stars.

Not that it mattered, not even after South Africa put up 244 (the highest total successfully chased on Sri Lankan soul was 213).

Mona (59) and Deepti (71) took India to 144 for 1. Then the South Africans hit back, taking out Mona and Deepti and Veda. Shikha was run out (not for the first or the last time in her career in a crunch match), and India lost wickets in a heap.

So Harman decided to intervene. She could not go off strike, so she decided to deal in even numbers of runs. She lost Poonam, but made sure the asking rate never went out of reach. When Marcia Letsoalo began the last over, India still needed 10, and had a solitary wicket in hand.

So Harman ran an impossible two (and survived). Three dot balls followed, but there is a reason that no one gives up hope when Harman is around. The next ball soared over mid-wicket towards the empty stands.

There should have been only a single off the last ball, but Rajeshwari had set off immediately after the ball had been delivered. The head start pushed her over the line. India clinched the title, which was redundant in the first place, for the top four teams had already qualified for the World Cup.

The tournament was followed by a quadrangular tournament in South Africa. Ireland and Zimbabwe did not pose much threat, thus reducing the tournament to a bilateral series.

Indeed, Zimbabwe were bowled out for 93 and 98 against India and Ireland scored 96 in their first match. India lost a combined total of one wicket to win these 3 matches.

Deepti (188) and Punam (109) went ballistic in the second match against Ireland, adding 320 for the opening wicket, a record for any wicket in Women’s ODIs by far. Ireland lost by 249 runs.

Even South Africa barely put up a fight in their first match as Jhulan (3 for 20) and Shikha (3 for 22) did wonders with the new ball. They were bowled out for 119 lost by 7 wickets.

Then they turned things around. They got to 269 for 5, but once again India looked in firm control at 151 for 5. At one stage India needed 24 from 20 balls with 4 wickets in hand, but Shabnim Ismail restricted them to 261 for 9.

It was India’s first ODI defeat after 16 consecutive wins.

Jhulan rose to the task again in the final, this time with 3 for 22. Poonam got 3 for 32 as well, and South Africa were bowled out for 156. Punam and Mithali then went after the bowling, and India won in a canter.

Top players

Batting Bowling
Player M R Ave SR Player M W Ave Econ
Deepti 20 787 49.18 71 Ekta 16 29 17.27 3.39
Mithali 19 783 71.18 77 Shikha 18 28 16.6 3.54
Punam 14 653 59.36 71 Deepti 20 22 28.9 3.8
Harman 20 505 50.5 84 Poonam 16 20 23.75 3.44
Mona 13 293 36.62 63 Rajeshwari 9 19 17.05 4.12
Veda 17 238 26.44 102 Jhulan 13 18 20.67 3.8

Three world records

When she trapped Raisibe Ntozakhe of South Africa leg-before in a league match of the quadrangular tournament in South Africa, Jhulan went past Cathryn Fitzpatrick’s world record of 180 wickets. Jhulan (195) currently has most wickets in Women’s ODIs.

When she caught Sune Luus off Poonam Yadav in the final of the same tournament, Jhulan went past the world record of 52 catches, held by Lydia Greenway and Charlotte Edwards. Jhulan (60) currently has most catches by a non-wicketkeeper in Women’s ODIs.

And when she played Ellyse Perry to the sweeper on the off in the World Cup league match against Australia, Mithali went past Charlotte’s world record of 5,992 runs. Mithali (6,190) currently has most runs in Women’s ODIs.

The Deepti factor

Deepti remains the unheralded star India never got to appreciate despite her 787 runs at 49.18 this year to go with 22 wickets at 28.90.

How good are these numbers? No Indian has scored as many runs in a calendar year. And of the top ten names in the list — I am talking across the world for a single year here — no one has taken as many wickets.

She is only 20, and is likely to blossom as India’s go-to person in years to come.

The journey ahead

If you have read till here, you (a) find the idea of women’s cricket attractive, and (b) have figured out that India Women have had a terrific year. Here is how incredible they have been:

  M W L W/L
ODIs 20 16 4 4
Unofficial ODIs 4 4
Total 24 20 4 5

But how have they done compared to the other sides?

Team M W L W/L
India 20 16 4 4
England 12 9 3 3
Australia 14 10 4 2.5
South Africa 23 15 8 1.9
New Zealand 12 6 6 1
West Indies 10 5 5 1
Sri Lanka 15 4 11 0.4
Bangladesh 10 2 8 0.3
Pakistan 15 3 12 0.3
Ireland 9 0 9 0

Yes, they have been the best, and by a considerable margin. Their batting average of 40.41 is the best in the year (Australia have 39.14; nobody else has crossed 35); and the same holds for their bowling average of 19.60 (South Africa 21.97, others over 26) and economy rate (3.79; South Africa 3.81; others 4.26 or more).

But what lies ahead? The World Cup final was played on July 23. India Women have not played a single international match since then. One wonders how difficult it would have been for BCCI to arrange for a series with one of the subcontinent teams.

They have not played a T20 International in 2017 (there have been 26 in all this year). And there is no point discussing Women’s Tests here, for not a single one — with the exception of the Women’s Ashes — has been played in the past three years.

Of course, there is some good news. There were talks about a Women’s IPL, which did not materialise (and is unlikely to, in near future). However, the India Women’s A team is in place, and they duly thrashed Bangladesh A in both ODIs and T20Is.

Both Mithali and Ekta were named in ICC Women’s ODI team of the Year. Ekta made it to the T20I team as well, alongside Harman (though India did not play a T20I).

India are also due to tour South Africa in early 2018 for 3 ODIs and 5 T20Is. Soon after that, Australia will pay a visit for 3 ODIs. This will be followed by a triangular T20I tournament in India, also featuring England.

Indeed, the future does not look too bleak. Sydney Thunder retained Harman for WBBL, while Veda has earned a contract for Hobart Hurricanes. Jemimah Rodrigues, that wonder-girl, has been fast-tracked into the India A side.

The problem lies elsewhere. Nobody, for example, was aware of the fact that the women’s domestic tournament is over — or that the Challenger Series will begin on January 4. The gap between fans and women’s cricket that had reduced drastically during the World Cup is back to where it used to be before the tournament.

Telecast, whether on television or on the internet, is essential for women’s cricket to reach the next level. Gone are the days when youngsters found their cricket heroes in books: they need visual transmissions, on satellite television or internet, preferably both. That was how Veda and Smriti (and many others) took to cricket in the first place, by watching Mithali and idolising her.

The next Veda or Smriti or Rajeshwari or Mansi or Sushma may come from anywhere: all they need is some initiative from the board or the broadcasters to tell them how awesome the big girls are and what they have achieved and can achieve.

It has been a good year. Let us not let it go.