Harmanpreet Kaur 171 2017 India Australia Women 2017
Harmanpreet Kaur walks off after her monumental 171 not out © Getty Images

On July 20, 2017, Harmanpreet Kaur launched a furious onslaught, knocking the mighty Australians almost single-handedly out of the World Cup. Abhishek Mukherjee recalls the greatest World Cup innings by an Indian.

What makes a great innings? A match-winning performance, some would say — but then, that rules out every single performance in a losing cause.

Would it be a superlative performance against a world-class side, or perhaps an innings at the grandest stage? Do they qualify as great innings?

What about the quality of the batting? What if the batsmanship, the strokeplay is so outrageous that context, opposition, and outcome all pale in comparison? Subjective… but then, you can always use strike rate as a parameter…

But let us combine the four. What if the innings has been played against a top attack and at a global stage and has involved disdainful strokeplay and has won a match and — for brownie points, if not anything else — was played while battling an injury?

The build-up

India had lost to Australia — and South Africa — in the group stage. They had won everything else, including the crucial England match. Then they made a crucial change for the must-win New Zealand match, bringing in Rajeshwari Gayakwad for Ekta Bisht.

Australia, on the other hand, had seemed almost unstoppable throughout the tournament. Their only defeat came against England, and even there it had come down to the last ball.

The Australians were expected to retain their title. They were the superior team based on form and history. The Indians were supposed to, at best, put up a fight.

It needed a special, very special performance for anything else to happen.

And that was precisely what that girl from nondescript Moga did that day.

The start

“I come in for Rachel Haynes,” announced Meg Lanning at the toss. Lanning had spent the tournament leading Australia and missing matches due to injury. Haynes did the same: she replaced Lanning, not only to play but also to lead.

Mithali Raj opted to bat after they curtailed the match to 42 overs. Smriti Mandhana, woefully short on runs since the 90 and 106* she got in her first two matches of the World Cup, hit a beautiful cover-drive for four; then she went for a half-hearted pull off the sixth ball of the match, mistimed, and lobbed it to cover. Her run read 2, 8, 4, 3, 13, and 6. She would follow this with a duck in the final.

There was little to worry, though. Punam Raut had scored a hundred against Australia in the league match; she was out there. She was joined by her captain Raj, who had got 69 in the same match. Unfortunately, while these were decent innings, the pair had had, between them, faced 250 balls that day for their 175 runs. That kind of scoring was definitely not going to be enough to stop the Australians in a 42-over match.

The new-ball bowlers, Megan Schutt and Ellyse Perry, bowled tidily. India ambled to 35 for 1 after 9 overs. There was no indication of what was to follow. Then Raut hit Ashleigh Gardener straight to deep mid-wicket.

And Harmanpreet Kaur, battling an injured finger, walked out to script history.

The calm

There was little progress on the ground. Raj had showed intent against New Zealand, but as in the league match against Australia, she hesitated to cut loose.

At the other end Kaur cover-drove Schutt to the fence. That was an obvious stroke, but a more emphatic one followed four balls later: Schutt pitched up, and Kaur smashed her back disdainfully, piercing mid-off and mid-on.

Four.

Perry kept pegging the Indians back. There was no easy run. By the time she finished her first spell she had figures of 6-1-18-0. Jess Jonassen and Kristin Beams bowled well in tandem; after 20 overs India were 70 for 2.

How much would they score off the final 22? Seventy? A hundred? Another fifty?

Beams strode in to bowl her leg-breaks. She bowled one of those flatter ones, just outside off. That slog sweep might have a predetermined shot; it might not have been, either.

Whatever it was, it opened the floodgates. Jonassen was lofted over her head for four. Perhaps sensing something was about to go wrong, Lanning recalled Schutt, but Kaur was ready: the sweep — Schutt is not exactly slow — ran down the vacant fine leg.

Schutt plotted a dismissal, a stumping down leg. It almost worked. Kaur tried to deflect it and missed and was left stranded outside the crease, but Alyssa Healy could not finish it off. The television cameras zoomed on her husband Mitchell Starc in the stands, glum-faced even by his standards.

And then Beams got Raj, bowled; she had tried to cut a ball not short enough.

India were 101 for 3 after 25 overs.

The storm

Deepti Sharma, then in her teens, strode out next. Sharma had been batting at one-drop (Raj put herself at four) in the early stages of the tournament. Then Raj promoted herself against Australia, and when the Indians needed to slog in the same match, Sharma kept getting demoted till she emerged at nine. Raj retained her own position against New Zealand, which meant Sharma had to adjust to her new position, at five.

But none of that mattered, for Kaur decided to cut loose. Beams was dispatched for a straight six, then for a pull past mid-wicket for four. If the first shot was authoritative, the second was contemptuous. It also brought up Kaur’s fifty, off 64 balls; her last 32 had come in 25 balls, and she was only warming up.

Perry returned. Sharma treated her with respect, but Kaur never bothered when Perry pitched short. She turned a full ninety degrees to loft it calmly over square-leg.

Lanning fell back upon a tried and tested method: when nothing works, change the bowlers as frequently as possible, don’t allow them to get used them to one pace, one length…

So Perry gave way to Beams, and Kaur hit her past cover for four. Then she stepped out to Jonassen and lofted her for six. She tried an encore, but Jonassen saw her in time and fired it down leg in a last-ditch, but on this day Kaur could do no wrong: she got a touch — which was all she needed — and picked up four.

The hundred took Kaur ninety balls and an emotional outburst. She pushed one to mid-wicket and sprinted for one, and then for a second. She made it, but young Sharma was late to respond for the second. The throw came to Healy, who broke the wicket at the non-striker’s end with a direct throw — but Sharma made it with a dive.

Poor Sharma. You could not have blamed her if she had hoped to get away (she had made it, after all). The senior batter had brought up her hundred, too. Surely this was a moment to cherish and not to be chastised ruthlessly?

How wrong she was. Sharma’s act had left Kaur in such fury that there was no celebration. The helmet was flung away in rage. Kaur unleashed a volley of goodness-knows-what on the youngster. That done, she decided to take it out on the Australians…

Harmanpreet Kaur 171 2017 India Australia Women 2017
Off comes the helmet: poor Deepti Sharma would bear the wrath of Harmanpreet Kaur… © Getty Images

Batting like never before

India were 185 for 3 after 35 overs. The 36th over went for 7, probably thirty more than what the Australians would have wanted. But then, they had to get through only 6 more overs. That should have kept the Australian spirits high, but the on-field momentum had shifted completely.

The Australians were visibly clueless: their length had gone awry, and at times they even looked resigned, insipid, even timid — adjectives you are not supposed to use while describing their ilk.

Then came that Gardner over. All Sharma needed to do was get out of the way with a single off the first ball. The next ball disappeared over mid-wicket; the one after that, over square-leg; the next, on off, was lofted over mid-off, for four; the two off the last ball seemed almost anticlimactic.

The sparse crowd had come to its feet. Back home, the office-goers had checked trends on social media and had hooked on to live telecast — of, for once, a Women’s World Cup semi-final.

And as for those in the dugout, well…

 

At this stage Kaur was not at her fittest, but the shots kept coming. The singles were probably not as hard as a fit Kaur would have, but the footwork seemed unaffected.

Schutt was hit out of the attack. Perry had done well, but she had a solitary over left. Lanning turned to Elyse Villani, not really a Jhulan Goswami — but then, what option did she have? And wasn’t it Villani who took those wickets against England?

So Villani it was, for the first time in the match, with four overs left. And she did get her wicket, but of Sharma, that too after Kaur had taken her for six and four. Sharma had gone virtually unnoticed for her 25. She was bowled, going for that almighty heave, but she had been there, enjoying the best seat throughout the onslaught, even withstanding Kaur’s outburst, helping her put on 137 in 82 balls.

Two balls later Kaur hit her haughtiest stroke even by her standards that day. Villani bowled outside off, but it was a full toss, and Kaur simply clobbered it nonchalantly past mid-wicket. Four. What technique? What respect?

Once again Lanning was left to calculate. The Villani ploy had got her the wrong wicket, that too at the cost of 19. She could not bowl her again. Perry and Schutt had an over left apiece, so Lanning had to conjure another over out of somewhere.

Lanning started with Perry, who gave away six. The first ball, a single, got Kaur to 150, off 108 balls. By this stage she was limping and not all twos were converted, but who cared as long you hit sixes?

This left Lanning with two choices: the first, count on Schutt to strike in the 41st over and hope; the other, preserve her for the final over. She chose the latter and recalled Jonassen.

Poor Jonassen perhaps caved in to the pressure. She started with a full-toss that sailed over the square-leg fence to nobody’s surprise. She at least pitched the next ball, but Kaur was already there before it arrived; the slog-sweep disappeared for six more.

One run later, Krishnamurthy found a casual boundary. Jonassen fell apart.

Harmanpreet Kaur 171 2017 India Australia Women 2017
There was not a single shot Harmanpreet Kaur did not play that day © Getty Images

But there was still an over to get out of the way. Schutt had bowled well, but this was Kaur’s day. The ball disappeared to the point fence. Schutt conceded another boundary, this one to Krishnamurthy, and the last over went for 13.

India finished on 281 for 4 in 42 overs. They last 17 overs had got them 180. The last 6 had yielded 89.

Harmanpreet Kaur finished with an unbeaten 171, from 115 balls. She hit 20 fours and 7 sixes. This was the highest score by an Indian woman in the World Cup. The gender did not even matter, for there was little doubt that no Indian had played an innings of such absurd pedigree in the World Cup.

Harmanpreet Kaur 171 2017 India Australia Women 2017
Australia demolition done. Harmanpreet Kaur walks off the ground with a smile, Veda Krishnamurthy in tow © Getty Images

What followed?

Australia, reduced to 21 for 3, found respite in a 105-run stand between Perry and Villani. Then wickets fell in a heap and they were soon 169 for 9, but then, as is always the case with Australians, some fight was left. Alex Blackwell gave India serious scare, smashing 90 in 56 balls and taking Australia to within 37 of the target, but in the end it turned out to be too much.

The ‘other’ story

I was in the newsroom when Kaur smashed Australia to smithereens. Journalism demands neutrality, but Kaur had squeezed all that out of me that night. We were celebrating, thousands of miles away from the scene of action… as we celebrated an Indian win.

For decades I had struggled to find a cricketing incident to take place on July 20. I wanted something to happen on my birthday. I share it with Maurice Leyland, an outstanding cricketer with a terrific career but not quite brag-worthy: nobody I know has seen him bat, you see.

Ian Botham’s Headingley miracle of 1981 was more appealing, but I was too young for that, and the match was not telecast in India anyway. I had hopes on Debasis Mohanty, but he let me down, and Naman Ojha never stood a chance against MS Dhoni.

In 2017 at Derby, Harmanpreet Kaur gave me something cricketing to brag about on my birthday. Spending the birthday evening at work was more than worth it.

Brief scores:

India Women 281 for 4 in 42 overs (Harmanpreet Kaur 171*) beat Australia Women 245 in 40.1 overs (Elyse Villani 75, Alex Blackwell 90; Deepti Sharma 3 for 59) by 36 runs.

Player of the Match: Harmanpreet Kaur.