|Skipper Mithali Raj leads the team back to pavillion|
It was just phenomenal. That the Indian women’s cricket team would be playing before a sell-out crowd at Lords’ in England at the Finals of the World Cup 2017, was really nothing short of a phenomenon. Though cruising well on the way to victory, the young team seemed to have come under the grip of nerves only to collapse within sniffing distance of a well-deserved victory. But, for this match winning or losing was not an issue. It was enough for their countrymen to savour and celebrate their entry into the finals after some very good cricket that they played.
There were sterling performances at the match by at least three of its members, Poonum Raut and Harmanpreet Singh with the bat and in the bowling department the old campaigner, Jhoolan Goswami, returned commendable figures accounting for three of the English ladies. The skipper, Mithali Raj, a consistent scorer, was unfortunately run out when only on 17 held back as she was by her spikes that dug into the ground while running a single. Despite a seeming collapse, contest-wise it was a close and thrilling finish.
It was a queer quirk of fate that the team lost to England in the Finals, a team which it had defeated in an earlier face-off. Likewise, it rode into the finals over a convincing win over Australia against which it had lost in a preliminary round. Obviously the team progressively raised the level of its performance during the tournament that took it to the finals for the second time but after a hiatus of more than a decade. A number of centuries were scored at the tournament, including an undefeated swashbuckling one of 171 (not out) off only 115 deliveries by Harmanpreet Singh in the semi-final that received appreciation from the world over and eventually saw her being included in the team of International Cricket Council.
Led by example by a consummate batswoman, Mithali Raj, the team was not expected to do so well in the tournament as it did. But Mithali herself scored 408 runs in this edition of the World Cup, only one run short of the highest scorer from the English side. She, however, went on to top the scoring charts by crossing the 6000 mark in Women’s Cricket, the highest ever by a woman. That was an individual accomplishment as it was indeed of her tall team mate, Jhoolan Goswami, who stood out with the figures of a total of 36 wickets – at the third position among the bowlers. Her 3 in the finals for 23 had almost snatched the match away from England
Goswami stated after the match that none of the cricketers had ever thought that the team would reach the finals. They knew it was underprepared and against seasoned campaigners they would be up against difficult and frustrating contests. But as the tournament progressed things started looking up. Smriti Mandhana who missed a century in the first match scoring 90 helped to win it against England. She showed great poise against a tougher team consistently lofted the ball to fly over close-in power-play fielders, That she did not do as well in subsequent matches was a surprise, Then Poonum Raut was in sublime form scoring a century. As expected Mithali Raj too chipped in with healthy scores including a hundred. It was the scintillating innings of Harmanpreet Singh against the Australians in the semifinals that captivated the supporters back home. The media literally went wild giving extensive coverage with photographs in print media. Harmanpreet’s innings was being likened to those of Sehwag in his hey days. Her 171 n.o with 20 fours and seven sixes was what sent supporters rooting for her. Incidentally, one never imagined that women cricketers could hit sixes. Hermanpreet had hit one at Sydney while playing in a professional league match that made the Australians to check her for any drug and her bat for some mysterious power.
Despite the fact that they lost the trophy, the team’s performance at the run up to the finals made them celebrities. Never before did women’s cricket was followed in the way it was this time and never before did women cricketers become the objects of such adoration. Receptions and celebrations followed on their return and the team members were lionized and feted all the way. What was more remarkable was Mithali being named the skipper of the International Cricket Council team because of her cricketing qualities. Two more girls, Harmanpreet Singh and Deepti Sharma, were also included in the team.
This is, perhaps, for the first time that the women’s cricket team has won laurels at an international competition and won so much of respect, love and affection. Even the Board of Control for Cricket in India was gracious in holding a reception for the team and giving a purse of 50 lakhs to each member of the team. As Mithali happened to note that it was a “revolution” that was taking place and only better efforts would justify the great love and affection showered on them by the countrymen.
The Indian women have had relatively greater successes in Field Hockey and have won gold medals at several international tournaments because of which they came to be known as the “Golden Girls of Hockey”. A film was too made on them by the noted producer/actor Sharukh Khan. On the other hand, the Indian women’s football is in total disarray. It has somehow lost its way after a bright opening. But one presumes, it is politics that did it in. However, with the recent stand out performance of the women’s cricket team and adulation showered on it things are likely to change and efforts seem to be already afoot to improve matters in other games including football and hockey.
For those of us, who have seen the whole concept of women out on the playing fields slowly evolve, cannot help marvelling at the change. When we were in schools and colleges 50 to 60 years ago girls playing field games was unheard of. A stray athletic event would have a few girls competing, but field games were, apparently, a no no. At the most, they would play less strenuous kho kho or Badminton, otherwise they would confine themselves to in indoor games like carrom and occasionally table tennis.
Slowly, things seemed to have picked up as the middle classes expanded and the conservatism regarding women “indulging” in manly sports was shaken off. The socio-cultural change brought in a fresh approach. Even the thinking in the governments changed and greater opportunities and sporting facilities were progressively made available for girls. This must have commenced about three or four decades ago. But while in other Asian countries, like Korea, China and Japan, women’s sports had a runaway success, we took time over matching their feats.
Currently, however, we have distinguished female players in Tennis and Badminton and even in boxing who now are among the best in the world. God and governments willing, soon we are likely to have world beaters in other sporting events too.
29th July 2017
*Photo from internet