There occurs defining moments in the history of all sporting events that change the way they are perceived and followed by public. Roger Bannister’s first ever sub-four-minute mile in 1954, Bob Beamon’s leap of the century in 1968, Fosbery’s flip over the high jump bars in 1968, Nadia Comeneci’s perfect 10 in 1976, Diego Maradona’s artistry with the soccer ball in 1986 and Michael Jordan’s slam-dunk on the basket ball court are some of the instances that readily come to one’s mind. Cricket lovers in India who viewed Harmanpreet Kaur’s superb ton in the semifinals of the ICC Women’s World Cup against Australia in the week that went by were fortunate to witness one such moment in the game's history.
Women’s World Cup Cricket was first held in 1973, two years before gentlemen decided to have a similar championship. Five nations - England, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, and Trinidad &Tobago- took part in the championship which was held in England. India made their debut in the tournament in 1978, where they were also the hosts. Ten editions of the championship had taken place before the present one staged in England. Since 2005, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has been organizing the conduct of this championship following the merger of International Women’s Cricket Council with ICC. This merger helped to overcome the funding difficulties that had been troubling the organizers.
Despite the popularity of the game in India and the success achieved by the men’s side, women’s cricket has remained a poor cousin. This is because the game is limited to a few pockets in the major cities while the vast majority of girls and women in the country remain oblivious about the existence of both the sport and the national side. Women’s cricket in India badly needed a heroic figure whose deeds could be emulated. It is this requirement that the innings of Harmanpreet Kaur against Australia would fulfill, both on account of the big stage on which it was played as well as the quality of the strokeplay, the caliber of the opposition and the match situation.
After making a good start by winning their first four matches, India had hit a mid-tournament slump in form when they lost back-to-back matches to South Africa and Australia. However, they managed to overpower New Zealand and reach the semifinals where they took on Australia, who had defeated them earlier in the tournament. In a match curtailed to 42-overs-a-side due to rain, India struggled against the Aussie bowling during the first half of the innings. When skipper Mithali Raj was dismissed, the Indian score was a dismal 101 runs for three wickets in 26 overs. Harmanpreet, who had walked in at the fall of the second wicket, decided to cut loose at this juncture. She waded into Australian bowlers and started hitting boundaries at will, easily clearing the ropes when she wished to. Her first 50 had come off 64 balls, the second one took only 26 balls, while the last one came off a mere 17 deliveries! None of the Aussie bowlers could escape the wrath of Harmanpreet even as skipper Meg Lanning tried all possible means to restrain her. She hit 20 boundaries and seven sixes and during her unbeaten 171 off only 115 balls! Such was her mastery that a commentator of the status and reputation of Ian Bishop had no hesitation in hailing it as the best innings played in women’s cricket.
Australians were understandably shell-shocked after remaining in the field while this cracker of an innings was being played. The target of 282 runs in 42 overs was a stiff one and loss of three early wickets pushed them further on to the back foot. Though Alex Blackwell and Elyse Villani played fighting knocks, the end result was never in doubt and India romped home by 36 runs to enter the final.
At this juncture one’s thoughts go back to another similarly iconic innings played for India in identical circumstances 34 years ago. India had lost all matches in the 1979 World Cup and were ranked lowest among the sides taking part in the 1983 edition. After starting the tournament well with wins over the West Indies and Zimbabwe, the Indian side ran into rough weather losing the next two games. India had to win the return match against Zimbabwe to remain in contention for a berth in the last four stage. Though Zimbabwe had not attained the status of a Test playing nation, they had showed they were no pushovers by defeating Australia. Besides, they possessed a bunch of talented and capable players who had proved their mettle in county cricket.
India won the toss and chose to bat on a greenish wicket at the picturesque Tunbridge Wells, which was hosting its first ever international match. If skipper Kapil Dev had hoped that the opening batsmen would give him a good start, which could be converted by the middle order into a big total, he was disappointed. Both Sunil Gavaskar and K. Srikkanth returned to the pavilion quickly, without troubling the scorers. Two more batsmen were dismissed with the total still in single digit when Kapil himself walked out to bat. India lost the wicket of Yashpal Sharma soon afterwards, when the scoreboard read 17 runs for 5 wickets! Kapil started slowly and steadied the innings in the company of Roger Binny. However, when the score reached 77, Binny was dismissed and new man Ravi Shastri, too left after a very short stay at the wicket. Madan Lal, who joined Kapil next, hung around gamely and the duo took the total to 140 when the partnership was broken.
Kapil Dev opened out in the company of Syed Kirmani, who joined him after the dismissal of Madan. He launched a magnificent assault on the Zimbabwean bowlers after reaching his century in the 49th over. The pair added 126 runs in a mere 13 overs, with Kirmani’s share being a doughty, unbeaten 26, while his skipper plundered 75 runs more, after reaching his hundred. After the Indian innings was closed with the total at 266 for eight wickets in 60 overs, Kapil opened the bowling with a sharp, tight spell which effectively pushed Zimbabwe out of the game. For the record, India won the match by 31 runs.
Kapil’s innings so inspired his teammates that India played like a transformed side defeating Australia, England and the West Indies in the ensuing three matches to lift the World Cup. Kapil’s Devils, as the team was christened by an English journalist, showed the cricketing world that India were no longer ‘also rans’, but instead a top side possessing the killer instinct to become world champions. The 1983 World Cup victory changed the course of Indian cricket as the game became popular across the length and breadth of the country. This, in turn, led to a new generation of players hailing from the bylanes of Jharkhand, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Kerala, who were brought up on the tales of this win, emerging on the Indian cricketing horizon. The World Cup triumph of 2011 was fashioned by such players who had broke the monopoly enjoyed by those belonging to the big cities and erstwhile princely states in the national side.
The brilliant innings of Harmanpreet has the potential to transform women’s cricket in India in the same manner as Kapil’s knock at Tunbridge Wells. As more and more young women and girls take inspiration from her and start playing cricket, corporates and other sponsors would also start viewing women’s cricket with keener interest and deeper purses,which would signal the renaissance of the game in the country. Here is a big salute to Harmanpreet, for her extraordinary effort, and to all her teammates for playing the game braving such heavy odds, and bringing honor to the nation and pride to the millions of fans of our cricket crazy country.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)