The wonder women of cricket!

Fifty percent of the tickets to the sold-out Women’s World Cup final at Lord’s were bought by ladies, and similarly there is now a new generation of young girls who are thinking about cricket because of the exploits of Mithali, Jhulan, Harmanpreet and Co.

The Indian women’s cricket team at a press conference in Mumbai on July 25, 2017 after its return from the ICC World Cup in England, where it finished runner-up.   -  VIJAY BATE

The year 2017 was when the world saw that a woman could stand front-and-centre in her own superhero story. No, we’re not referring to the excellent Wonder Woman movie, but the ICC Women’s World Cup. To compare this World Cup to the last is almost like comparing the world before and after smartphones arrived. Yes, eight teams still played the tournament, but the scale of engagement on the ground, on TV and on social media was unparalleled. While only 10 games were televised worldwide, there were camera crews at every game, feeding into a live stream. The country-wise rights to this feed were bought by various broadcasters, who took their nations’ matches to audiences back home. It led to an 80% rise in viewership across the world (compared to 2013), with a 47% rise in India just after the group stage. Sports presenter Alison Mitchell tweeted that 1.1 million people watched the final on Sky in England, which was higher than the figure for the men’s Champion’s Trophy final.

 

Besides the camera crew, the ICC also had a significant social media presence at every game, creating content like the video feature that told the story of how Jhulan Goswami first inspired Pakistan medium-pacer Kainat Imtiaz to play cricket. It is an apt example for the impact this tournament will have on the generations to come.

On the field, the question was who would beat Australia? Two teams answered that, England and India, but India did it in more spectacular fashion. Harmanpreet Kaur didn’t just send the favourites home, she lit a box of firecrackers under their plans to defend the title. Every boundary and every six in her 171* (115 balls) — one of the best ODI innings ever — took India closer to a chance to better the team of 2005. Eventually, they would fall just 10 runs short.

READ: Harmanpreet in complete harmony with her game

England, having beaten every team in the tournament, finally lifted their first title since 2009, their fourth World Cup overall.

For India, the campaign was groundbreaking even though it was not victorious. At the last minute, Star Sports made the decision to televise India’s virtual quarterfinal against New Zealand, which was originally not part of the broadcast deal (why they didn’t broadcast the rest if they could is a question for another time). India emphatically won that game, on the back of a Mithali Raj century and a Rajeshwari Gayakwad five-for, which gave the viewers a taste of what was to come.

The Indian women’s team had good crowd-support in England.   -  AFP

 

Three thrilling knockout matches followed, which had viewers well and truly hooked. For the final there were crowds outside the gates of a sold-out Lord’s as well as chai-stalls in India.

For Mithali Raj, it was a sea change from the time she led her country into the final of the 2005 World Cup. “In 2005, until we reached the finals we didn’t have that much support,” she said at Lord’s. “Even people who wanted to follow women’s cricket could not. That is completely different to what today the Indian team is. Because the matches are televised and the girls have performed, the whole of India is sitting up today and watching the girls play.”

Most heartening in this campaign was the fact that other batters besides Raj raised their game when it mattered the most. Veda Krishnamurthy scored 70 off 45 balls against New Zealand, and Punam Raut top scored in the final with 86. Deepti Sharma had two half centuries to accompany her 12 wickets, and Harmanpreet towered over the scorecard in the semifinal, besides contributing 51 in the final. Most notably, in the final two games, Mithali Raj’s contribution was just 53 of the 476 runs the Indian batters scored. These are good signs for a team that will play its next World Cup without her and Jhulan Goswami.

Mithali scored 409 runs in the tournament, just two short of becoming the highest run-getter, and was named captain of the Team of the Tournament. But her side looks well equipped for when she eventually leaves.

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

Harmanpreet Kaur was named captain of the T20I side last year, and her outburst at young Deepti Sharma in the semifinal notwithstanding, has solid captaincy credentials and looks set to take over as ODI captain whenever India play next.

Besides Harmanpreet, Mithali picked two more names as players who can fill the vacuum she will eventually create. “Harmanpreet is there now, there might be Deepti Sharma, Smriti Mandhana...you never know whose destiny takes them, but this bunch of players has the ability to take up the challenge whenever it’s given to them,” Mithali said, speaking to the media during the BCCI’s felicitation ceremony.

While Mithali has said she will continue to play for a couple of years, there is more uncertainty surrounding Goswami’s future, and her replacements. “I have not thought about it,” she said during the tournament. “For me, this match is important. After this there is a lot of time to consider all these things. I don’t want to leave this moment.” The 34-year old fast bowler was not at her best when the tournament began, but like the younger players, showed her value when it mattered. In the semifinal, she castled Australian skipper Meg Lanning with a superb delivery, going past the outside edge to hit the off stump. And she saved her best for the final, where she returned figures of 10-3-23-3 on a pitch that gave her nothing. Her new-ball partner Shikha Pandey did well overall, getting a wicket in her first over in three of her seven matches. But beyond her and Mansi Joshi, India’s fast-bowling stocks look thin.

The next generation is already heading towards the nets though. Fifty percent of the tickets to the sold-out final at Lord’s were bought by women, and similarly there is now a new generation of young girls who are thinking about cricket because of the exploits of Raj, Goswami and Co. As with the Imtiaz-Goswami story, when this generation of players speak of their origins, the performance of 2017 will figure prominently in them.