Harmanpreet in complete harmony with her game

The face of the bold, brave new generation of Indian women cricketers who can inspire and attract young crowds to the sport. That is Harmanpreet Kaur, in conversation with Sportstar.

Harmanpreet Kaur... the poster girl of Indian women’s cricket.   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Think of a teeny-weeny girl, wiry and far from the oft-circulated images of muscular athletes, wielding a cricket bat that looks too big for her with aplomb and hitting sixes against boys. An uncommon sight, no doubt, but not impossible, right?

Now think of the girl doing it before her school principal, who also doubled up as a cricket coach and, instead of a reprimand, being told that if she really wanted to play seriously, he would build a girls’ cricket team in his school, in the dusty by-lanes of the tiny city of Moga (Punjab). Sounds improbable, right?

Kamaldeesh Singh Sodhi wasn’t being a visionary or an astute investor when he backed a young Harmanpreet Kaur, who showed great interest in cricket. He was simply trying to encourage the kid to pursue her passion. It was a huge support for Harmanpreet in a country that continues to place its sportswomen — specially in team events and particularly in a sport like cricket — on a lower rung.

Now 28, but still wiry, and at 5’3” and 55kg not exactly a towering figure off the field, Harmanpreet repaid her coach’s faith in the best possible manner when she smashed an unbeaten 171 off 115 deliveries against the mighty Australians in the World Cup recently.

“There is not much professional cricket anyway in my city, and women’s cricket is non-existent. Still, my coach and principal Kamaldeep Singh Sodhi supported me in playing cricket and even started a girls’ team because of me. That was a huge thing to do back then, and I will always be grateful for that,” said Harmanpreet in a chat with Sportstar.

Harmanpreet Kaur... “Since childhood, I have played cricket with the boys, who used to hit sixes, and I liked it too.”   -  Getty Images

That knock wasn’t the first, and clearly wouldn’t be the last of Harmanpreet’s big-hitting prowess. She has done it before, and would do it again. However, the difference this time was the opposition, the stage and, most importantly, the fact that it was being televised world over. Overnight, there were excited voices from ordinary followers of the game: who is Harmanpreet Kaur?

“I have played knocks like that in domestic cricket... But that match (against Australia) was telecast and people saw it,” she declared.

It would be easy to restrict the Moga girl to just that one innings, or facetiously dub her as ‘lady Virat/ Sehwag/ Yuvraj’. It would then be unfair, because Harmanpreet is all of it, and maybe even more.

READ: Mithali Raj: ‘Indian team can look ahead with optimism’

In the process (of her knock), she has also become the face of the bold, brave new generation of Indian women cricketers who can inspire and attract young crowds to the sport.

As a Punjabi, Harmanpreet admits to being naturally aggressive, something that is evident in her game, and her desire to win at any cost. She can be aggressive verbally too, as the visibly shaken 19-year-old Deepti Sharma found out during the World Cup semifinal against Australia. Occasionally, though, it does result in sledging too.

In a reality show recently, Harmanpreet admitted sledging was at its highest against Pakistan. She also said that she loves playing in and against Australia and England, arguably the two best teams in women’s cricket in the world with more support and exposure than any other side. No wonder then that the major milestones of Harmanpreet’s career have involved these teams.

Making a modest debut in 2009, against Pakistan in Australia, Harmanpreet’s first half-century came against England at home in 2010. The breakthrough year for her, though, was 2013, when she scored her maiden century (107 not out off 109 balls) against England during the World Cup in Mumbai. Though the knock did not help India win, it drew praise from the rival captain and one of the legends of the game, Charlotte Edwards.

Harmanpreet hasn’t looked back since, earning the T20 captaincy and leading India in the ODI World Cup qualifiers (in Sri Lanka) earlier this year in the absence of Mithali Raj, taking the team over the line in the final with a run-a-ball unbeaten 41. She skipped down the track and hit the penultimate ball of the innings for a huge six, and then pushed hard to complete two runs and a famous victory, which confirmed India’s ticket to England.

The unbeaten 171 Harmanpreet scored turned every assumed notion of women’s cricket on its head. It put paid to the belief that women and cricket went together only as an eye candy; that women may caress the ball to smaller boundaries but not give the 21st century generation the adrenaline rush it seeks through big hits over the fence; that you need to show off your ripping muscles to psyche the opposition.

Harmanpreet doesn’t seem intimidating, and at times, the helmet looks too big for her. But when she lets rip, the ball flies into the stands — as it did so many times that day, the on-air figures putting some of the shots at over 90 metres. Forget the smaller boundaries in women’s cricket, those shots would go over the ropes even in men’s cricket. 122 of her 171 came in boundaries that day.

“I like to bat that way. Since childhood, I have played cricket with the boys, who used to hit sixes, and I liked it too,” said Harmanpreet, who is a fan of Virender Sehwag. And, like her idol, she pulverised the Aussies that day.

Harmanpreet had scored 60 in the previous, must-win match against New Zealand. She was complemented by Veda Krishnamurthy, who scored 70 off 45 balls. In the same match Mithali Raj scored a majestic century. But Veda, Harmanpreet, Deepti Sharma, Punam Raut, Smriti Mandhana — these are the names of a new generation of Indian women who make watching cricket a delight. They have also, for now, de-hyphenated the game from the gender. They look pretty, sure, but that is not their calling card. What is, is their fitness, the impeccable direct hits on the stumps, the aggression, the unwillingness to back down in any situation. Harmanpreet, though, is undoubtedly the leader of the pack. She has been a leader in other ways too. She was the first India cricketer to sign a contract in the Big Bash League, with Sydney Thunder, in Australia last year (she ended the season as the second highest scorer for her team).

 

Now, the first to sign up (for Surrey Stars) to play in ECB’s Kia Super League, Harmanpreet swore by her experiences.

“The mindset is completely different from what we have here. I have seen both sides of the preparations — how they do it versus how we do it. They are very active, specially in sports activities, it is very hard training. We have only started doing here in the last two years what they have been doing for years, from school level itself. If cricket starts in schools for girls here also, there will be a huge improvement,” Harmanpreet said.

She got lucky, that way. Not many do. That might just change from here on. And for that, Harmanpreet will always be the pioneer.