When Kaur silenced the South African roar

“Before this, I had played match-winning knocks. But this was a tournament-winning knock. It was winning gold for the country,” says Harmanpreet Kaur of her run-a-ball 41 that helped India win the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier.

Rajeshwari Gayakwad hugs skipper Harmanpreet Kaur after India's thrilling victory against South Africa in the ICC Women's World Cup Qualifier final in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Joining in the celebration is Mansi Joshi.   -  AP

The last time India won a major tournament was in 1994 (not counting the Asia Cup, where India is by far the strongest team). That was one of the biggest wins in Indian women’s cricket history; India beat Australia and host New Zealand, two of the world’s best sides, in the New Zealand Women’s Centenary tournament. Since then, India has managed a final (2005) and third place (2009) at the ODI World Cup, third place in the Quadrangular Tournament (2011), and semifinal appearances that have become increasingly rare.

Since the ICC took over in 2006, India has never won an ICC event. Until now.

Making history

When India won in 1994, Harmanpreet Kaur was five years old. Almost two decades later, in 2013, she would announce herself on the international stage, in a World Cup at home, with a maiden century against England. It ended up in a losing cause. The entire campaign, supposed to be India’s best chance to win a World Cup, was a losing cause. India crashed out in the first round.

The year 2013 also saw the birth of the ICC Women’s Championship, a roadmap to the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 in England, played over four years. Forfeiture of the series against Pakistan saw India narrowly miss out on direct qualification. India had to earn a spot the hard way, through the ICC Women’s Qualifier.

In the meantime, Harmanpreet Kaur was elevated to the captaincy of the Indian team in the T20 format in October 2016. She also made history as the first Indian to be signed by and play in Australia’s Women’s Big Bash League, the best domestic tournament in the world.

Overcoming the odds

Harmanpreet had been bothered by a wrist injury all through the WBBL. “On some days it hurt, and on others it was fine,” she told Sportstar. Once back in India in January 2017, she had to rest it ahead of the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifiers in Colombo, played in February. “After the WBBL, I didn’t touch a bat until the first match of the qualifiers to give it a chance to recover.” While this strategy helped the wrist heal, it meant she was searching for form in the early games of the tournament. Her scores read: 18, 20, 15, 20 not out, 11 not out and 7. “I was slightly low on confidence. It was a bit difficult to shift gears from T20 to ODI,” she said.

Members of the Indian team with the trophy after defeating South Africa in the World Cup Qualifier final.   -  AP

 

Harmanpreet wanted to bat with the same aggressive mindset that had seen her score 47 not out off 28 balls in the WBBL opener, but she was holding back, trying to work herself back into the cadence of ODIs. By the time India qualified for the final, she was striking the ball well.

Ten minutes before the toss though, came some news — unwelcome as it was unexpected. Mithali Raj, the ODI skipper and India’s batting cornerstone (she had more than 200 runs in the tournament; Harmanpreet had 97), was still feeling a hamstring niggle that she picked up in the previous game. Harmanpreet would have to lead the team in the biggest match of the tournament.

“It meant more responsibility on me. We were already without Jhulan di and Smriti (both out due to injury), now to lose Mithali di also was a challenge for the team, which had some new players. But I spoke to the team before the game and just asked them to play free cricket.

“As captain, I want to set an example. How else can I demand performance from my players?” she said.

As if those setbacks weren’t enough, India’s opponent in the final, South Africa, was no pushover. It had beaten India 2-1 in an ODI series at home in 2014. In the final in Colombo, South Africa put up 244, which was then 11 runs more than India’s highest ever chase in ODIs. India’s young top order responded with two half centuries, and when Harmanpreet came in, India needed 97 at a run a ball with seven wickets in hand.

Rarely is a chase in a final so straightforward, though. India lost four wickets for 14 runs — including a horrific collapse of three wickets for two runs — which left Harmanpreet batting with Poonam Yadav, India’s number 10. It was a test of Harmanpreet’s skill in handling her players as much as handling her bat.

“We needed about 30 (22) runs at that point. I told Poonam not to think about those 30 runs, and to just think she had to score five to six runs. I told her I would get the rest. Since they were bowling good yorkers, I also asked her to change her stance,” Harmanpreet said.

By the time Yadav was out, she had scored seven vital runs and gotten Harmanpreet on strike for the last five balls, off which eight runs were needed to win the tournament.

Harmanpreet Kaur... "As captain, I want to set an example. How else can I demand performance from my players?"   -  AP

 

Harmanpreet had a firm conviction that India would win. “Playing in the WBBL and the home series against the West Indies had given me confidence. I had played some tough matches in the last few months,” she said.

Still, that belief was tested as South Africa then managed three dot balls, with Harmanpreet looking for the big shots but not connecting. Eight off two required. Then she stepped out and smashed the penultimate ball over mid-wicket for a six. A mis-hit provided two the next ball, and India had made history. Harmanpreet finished with a run-a-ball 41, and helped her country win the first ever ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier, and with it, India’s first title in a major tournament since 1994. She threw her bat up in the air in celebration, and moments later, was on her knees, kissing the pitch.

Inspiring victory

Harmanpreet Kaur has two ODI hundreds and eight half-centuries but she rated this innings as the biggest she had ever played. “Before this, I had played match-winning knocks. But this was a tournament-winning knock. It was winning gold for the country,” she said.

If you look closely, there was little up for grabs in the final. India had already secured a berth in the World Cup. There was no special advantage the title would give them, besides a confidence boost. And yet there was so much on the line. Had India lost, it would have gone into the World Cup without ever knowing how it felt to win a big tournament. It also gave the Indians a 13-match winning streak in ODIs. That streak began with a win away against Australia and a series clean sweep against the formidable West Indies.

Looking ahead to the World Cup, Harmanpreet reinforced the value of this win. “Playing a tournament like this is really good experience for the World Cup,” she said. “Some senior players couldn’t play, so the juniors got time in the team, in the middle, and they performed well. So we now have about 20 girls who have the experience of doing well in international cricket.”

This is a new luxury. Consider this: in the squad that played in the 2005 World Cup, as yet India’s best performance, only three had been part of the XI that won the Centenary tournament in 1994. “Some players have to go into a tournament without experience. Now everyone in the team knows what it takes to win tough series and to win a big tournament,” Harmanpreet said.

Asked if she ever expected her last 12 months to be as record-breaking as they were, so successful for her personally and for the team, the answer was surprising. “I did,” she said without hesitation.

“I knew the schedule for the year. I knew what tournaments were coming up, and with my coach, I planned and prepared accordingly. I guess that’s why I got the results.”

In Harmanpreet Kaur, India has found exactly the icon it needs to inspire women to play the game. The final has more than five lakh views on YouTube till date. The clip of the last over finish has more than two million views on ICC’s social media channels. There are people who know about women’s cricket only because of Harmanpreet.

With this win, she has helped India gain the confidence to claim the title it has never won. A World Cup.

The writer is a former India cricketer and a freelance journalist.