Harmanpreet Kaur took Indi to victory with her stunning 41*    Getty Images
Harmanpreet Kaur took India to victory with her stunning 41* Getty Images

Harmanpreet Kaur stood calmly at one end of the pitch. The stands at P Sara Oval were so empty that they made you wonder whether people were actually allowed to sit there. India Women needed 9 runs to clinch the trophy. The last time Poonam Yadav, standing at the non-striker s end and eager to sprint at the drop of a hat, scored 9 was back in 2014. Rajeshwari Gayakwad, the No. 11 (do they call them Jack in Women s cricket as well?) waiting all padded up, had no such achievement: her highest international score read an unremarkable 5. Though Poonam had got 7 runs earlier in the day, her runs included an edged boundary. READ: Harmanpreet leads India to nail-biting victory against South Africa in final of ICC Women s World Cup Qualifiers 2017

In other words, Harmanpreet knew she had to do it alone. There was no second thought about it. She would have to go for the big hits. If they ran, it would have to be in even numbers. She could not afford to concede strike to Poonam or Rajeshwari.

Entrusting others with the strike had not helped India anyway, not today. She had steadied ship after Mona Meshram and Deepti Sharma fell in quick succession after that crucial second-wicket 124. She had lost Veda Krishnamurthy after adding 42, but Shikha Pandey s boundaries had kept the pressure on.

India Women needed 36 from 39 balls. They were cruising.

Then Shikha pushed one towards cover-point. As Lizelle Lee flung herself on the ground to stop the ball, Harmanpreet tore down towards the other end. Shikha, basics forgotten, kept looking at Lizelle and was late to respond to her captain s call.

She was beaten by Lizelle s throw at the non-striker s end.

The captain of India

Captain. Harmanpreet Kaur Bhullar was leading India in the final after Mithali Raj had picked up an injury. Not only was Mithali the captain, she was also the lynchpin of the batting line-up. Up against a steep 245-run target, Mithali s absence was supposed to hurt.

They had already come into the tournament without Jhulan Goswami and Smriti Mandhana. Losing Mithali had reduced the probability of a successful chase significantly.

India Women had never chased a target this big. But then, statisticians had pointed out the same when they had to chase 232 at Hobart last year. They had pulled that off with 3 overs in hand.

The highest total successfully chased by any side on Sri Lankan soil, earlier in the tournament, but that was by the hosts. Pakistan Women had set a mere 213 on that occasion.

What about the highest by a touring team? 169…

No, things were not looking good.

I had tried to quiz a few acquaintances during last year s Asia Cup: who was the Indian captain? Mithali Raj was the common consensus; while there were two mentions of Jhulan. Harmanpreet was named by exactly one person.

#TeamMithali used to trend on Twitter a year back that girl from Hyderabad led India to an ICC event. I tried #TeamHarman and #TeamKaur today, to no avail.

No, no one outside ardent followers of The Eves was aware of the fact that Harry was leading India for the day, masterminding the side against all odds in the absence of two mainstays in the batting line-up.

The collapse

Where were we? Oh, Shikha s run out. Harmanpreet pushed the next ball to cover. Devika Vaidya that prodigious teenager who has batted so brilliantly at every opportunity responded.

Ayabonga Khaka hit the base of the stumps with the next ball. The ball was too quick for the youngster.

But that was fine. Any side can lose two wickets in three balls. Harmanpreet had been there, done that. There was a reason why she had done so well in Women s Big Bash League this season: if 296 runs at 59.20 (and a strike rate of 117) had not been enough, she had also taken 6 wickets at 17, giving away 7.06 an over. READ: India Women finish ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifiers 2017 unbeaten but have demons to conquer

Against Melbourne Stars she had taken 4 for 27 before smashing an unbeaten 30 in 21 balls. And we all know about Gemma Triscari s astonished reaction after Harmanpreet had hit her over extra-cover for six.

No, there was no reason to worry. Yet.

India Women needed 35 from 36. Harmanpreet drove the next ball nonchalantly to long-on. Single.

Sushma Verma can be competent with bat on her day, but a fast yorker first ball is too much for almost anyone to handle. Devika had not been able to. Sushma that incorrigible chatterbox behind the stumps who helps lift the Indian spirit with her presence when her side fields could not, either.

Two golden ducks. India Women had lost 3 wickets for 2 runs in 5 balls.

Out came Ekta Bisht. Her eyes lit up when Shabnim Ismail bowled outside off. An agricultural thwack over cover got her a boundary. Harmanpreet responded at the other end with four past point. India Women were back in the game but not for long. They scampered for ones and twos. The target came down.

Ayabonga pitched up the next one. The ball, deceptively, almost magically slow, came down as Ekta, for some inexplicable reason, tried to guide the ball towards third-man and failed. It was almost certainly a predetermined attempt. She ended being cleaned-up.

Harmanpreet raised her bat in the air in exasperation. You could almost sense her helplessness as she saw her partners go down, one by one. She had every reason to. The South Africans had taken out 4 for 14 in 13 balls.

Poonam was beaten off the next two balls. India needed 22 from 24 balls, but they had only 2 wickets in hand. Now this was serious.

Marizanne returns

On came Marizanne Kapp, ranked No. 1 in ICC s ODI rankings for bowlers. Harmanpreet was on strike. This was it, a battle between two women who would shape the sport in years to come.

There was a stifled appeal when the ball hit the pad. No, said the umpire as they scrambled across for a leg-bye. It was evident that Harmanpreet would not hold up strike.

Poonam could not get off strike for the next two balls, but she did put bat on ball. A leg-bye off the next ball got Harmanpreet back on strike.

A casual flick got Harmanpreet a single. Poonam played the last ball without discomfort.

The handful of YouTube users following the match gasped when Harmanpreet took another single, this time attempting to thrash Shabnim s first ball to the point boundary.

Poonam pushed at the next ball. The edge ran past the ropes. The pressure was released, at least temporarily.

The over got India Women 7. They needed 12 from 12. Harmanpreet was back on strike.

Marizanne, tall, lithe, Marizanne, she of metronomic precision, resumed. Even from a distance you could spot her the ubiquitous almost iconic black wristwatch on her left hand. Once again Harmanpreet flicked, and got a single. Did she err in judgement this time?

Marizanne, champion bowler that she is, saw the opportunity. She had Harmanpreet off strike. She knew a wicket would switch the match in their favour. The fielders converged. If Poonam wanted runs she would have to clear the in-field. South Africa were certainly not in any mood to give singles away.

Poonam poked at one and was beaten. She drove the next ball to cover, was beaten off the next, and played the next ball back to Marizanne.

Marizanne had not been able to dismiss Poonam. However, the four dot balls had brought the target down to 11 from 7 balls.

The plan had worked perfectly. South Africa could protect the boundary now. If anything, they would prefer Poonam taking the single.

Poonam stepped out. She did not middle it. By the time deep third-man had run to her left and sent the ball back, they had run two.

The Poonam predicament

They had all bowled out, Marizanne and Shabnim and Ayabonga and Dane van Niekerk herself. Would it be the leg-breaks of Sune Luus or the medium-pace of Marcia Letsoalo? Dane went for the latter.

Anjum Chopra was not completely convinced behind the microphone: The only reason why I see Marcia Letsoalo has been given the ball ahead of the leg-spinner was because of her experience.

Sixteen seasons back Emily Drumm had had a brainwave just before the last over. She had followed her hunch to get Clare Nicholson to bowl instead of death-over specialist Haidee Tiffen. With 6 to defend, Clare had taken the last wicket with her first ball, and New Zealand had lifted their first World Cup.

Dane, a mere 23, had her reasons as well.

The first ball was so slow that it seemed to hang in the air for a millisecond before arriving. Even those powerful arms of Harmanpreet were not sufficient to clear the fence. The ball rolled harmlessly towards Chloe Tryon at deep mid-wicket as they scampered down for a single but surely they could not have Harmanpreet off strike at this stage?

There was no option. They had to back for the second run, however impossible. Harmanpreet had to be back on strike. The batters were so short that Chloe could probably even have found Harmanpreet short, had she thrown at her end.

The only plus that came out of that run out was a single. India Women needed 8 from 5 balls.

Three dots and a cricket law

Rajeshwari walked out. Earlier in the day she had taken three crucial wickets to prevent South Africa from reaching that 260-mark. She was an outstanding bowler, but batting did not feature very high on her CV.

Marcia ran in. If anything, this one was probably slower than even the previous delivery. It was even too slow for Harmanpreet, whose slog sweep came down too quickly. She had completed the full swing of her bat when the ball crashed into her body. 8 from 4.

Once again Marcia pitched up. This time Harmanpreet connected, but turned down the single as the ball rolled to long-off.

Marcia took the pace off again. The ball was down leg, but Harmanpreet had already moved away. The ball went down leg, but between Harmanpreet s legs.

David Townsend sounded concerned on air. Had Harmanpreet connected? If not, the umpire would certainly signal a wide…

Anjum tried her best to convince her partner in the box: She went over the ball… went between her legs…

Still went past leg-stump, could have been signalled a wide, came the response.

Anjum gave up. India Women, after all, needed 8 from 2 balls.

Big towards BIC

It was now or never. The physics was elementary. There was no pace on the ball, which meant that Harmanpreet had to provide all the momentum if she wanted those boundaries. And for that, she had to use brute force or had to step out or combine both.

And she did both.

She had left the crease almost as soon as the ball left Marcia s hand. The bat obeyed her command till the end. She had done this a thousand times, maybe more, in the next. There was no way she was going to get this wrong.

It is almost impossible to tell whether the finishing arc of the bat was more beautiful than the trajectory of the ball as it soared past the mid-wicket boundary.

The ball lost altitude, but she had hit it hard enough. Deep mid-wicket moved back as much as she could, making sure in the process that she did not touch the ropes.

There was almost no spectator on the ground. Barring the ball-boys, the only spectators were a couple of models, male and female, endorsing BIC safety razors on a billboard just across the ropes but inside the ground, just away from where the six landed despite deep mid-wicket s sincerest efforts.

Rajeshwari ran up to Harmanpreet for their final discussion of the tournament. Her captain insisted they ran hard, for she was going to hit it hard and on the ground. Rajeshwari sent her helmet off.

Marcia, meanwhile, was flanked by Dane, Marizanne, and Shabnim, the senior pros. Shabnim rounded off the conference with a smile, genuine enough to take any pressure off Marcia.

Harmanpreet stood calm amidst all this. Her expressions were indecipherable behind the grille.

An Indian captain smiles

Once again Marcia bowled slow. Once again Harmanpreet stepped out and took it on the full. Once again Harmanpreet gave it her all.

Unfortunately, she did not connect well this time (in fact, she could not keep it on the ground as she had promised to her partner), but there was no time for all that… irrespective of the timing they could not afford to stop before either the second run was completed or one of them got out.

Long-on rushed in to stop that second run, but ages before that, even before Harmanpreet s swish had connected the ball, little Rajeshwari was tearing down the pitch as if her life depended on it…

The head-start helped. Rajeshwari flung herself on the ground as Marcia prepared herself to collect the throw she failed to gather the ball and made it.

By the time she had gathered herself off the ground, Harmanpreet had set off. In a rare display of on-field emotions, Indian captain Harmanpreet Kaur Bhullar sprinted down towards point.

Up went the treasured willow in the air. Off came the gloves, both at the same time, then the helmet…

And then, finally, perhaps for the first time during her stay at the crease, Harmanpreet s lips curled into the rarest of smiles. On came Rajeshwari for the hug, then Mansi Joshi, India s new spearhead who was left out of the match, then the others… and the huddle obscured her from the camera.

And when they eventually let her go, Harmanpreet knelt down to kiss the pitch where she had just pulled off one of the greatest chases of all time.