Column | Hats off to Harmanpreet Kaur & Co.

Harmanpreet Kaur
Indian skipper Harmanpreet Kaur, right, poses with the winner's trophy. File photo: PTI/R Senthil Kumar

The celebrations that followed India wining the International Cricket Council T20 World Cup are yet to die down. The squad was ferried from Bridgetown in a charted aircraft to New Delhi where Prime Minister Narendra Modi took time off his schedule to host a breakfast for the players. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announced a huge bonanza for the players amounting to Rs 125 crore, while the victory parade organised in an open bus at Mumbai saw lakhs of people lining up the streets to cheer their heroes. There were discussions galore about the finals where we bested South Africa, with the bowling of Jasprit Bumrah, the catch taken by Surya Kumar Yadav, the calm and composure of Hardik Pandya, the captaincy skills of Rohit Sharma and the strategies planned by Rahul Dravid eating up considerable time and space in visual and print media as well in the ubiquitous social media.

However, even as this victory was being lauded came the news of yet another win over the South Africans. This time the margin of victory was even bigger but the news of this achievement did not make it to the front pages of the newspapers nor did they head their sports page. However, the fact remains that the 10 wicket defeat that the Indian women’s side handed over to the South Africans in the one-off Test played at Chennai from June 28 to July 1 was a significant milestone in the history of women's cricket in our country for many reasons.

In the first place, this victory comes on the back of two other wins recorded by the side against England and Australia in December, 2023. The Indian women had defeated their counterparts from England by a huge margin of 347 runs in the Test played at the D Y Patil Stadium, while we had won against Australia by eight wickets, with the match held at the Wankhade Stadium. With wins against all  three major cricket playing countries, it can be stated with confidence that the Indian women are now comfortably placed at the top of the pile in international red ball cricket. 

There were many topnotch performances by the Indians in the Test against South Africa. Sneh Rana, the doughty off-spinner returned match figures of 10/188, while Shafali Verma scored a swashbuckling 205 and Smriti Mandhana hit a stylish 149. Further, there were half-centuries from the bats of wicketkeeper Richa Ghosh (86), skipper Harmanpreet Kaur (69) and Jemima Rodriguez (55). The 292-run stand between Shefali and Smrithi is also a new record for the highest partnership for the first wicket in women’s Test matches. Incidentally, the 143-run stand between Harmanpreet and Richa, which came off only 25.5 overs, was also a new record for the highest fithth-wicket partnership in women’s Test cricket.

Sneh Rana and Shafali Verma
Sneh Rana and Shafali Verma did the star turn for India. File photo: PTI/R Senthil Kumar

Sneh was chosen as the player of the match for her brilliant bowling performance. She bowled like a workhorse, sending down 65.3 overs, spread over the two innings. This was a marathon bowling performance in the sweltering summer heat of Chennai. Earlier, she had played a key role in the Test win over Australia, where also she was the player of the match, for her match-winning figures of 7 /119. She was ably supported by Deepti Sharma, her off-spin bowling partner, who was the hero in the Test against England where she picked 9 /39 . Against South Africa, Deepti took two wickets in each innings, while sending down 66 overs! The fact that these two off-spinners bowled 131 overs out of the 220 sent down by India shows the immense contribution made by this duo towards the cause of the side.

Shafali’s innings of 205 was undoubtedly the highlight of Indian batting. Ever since she burst into the international arena as a precocious 15-year-old in 2019, Shafali has been considered as one of the most exciting prospects in women’s cricket. However, she often flattered to deceive, throwing away her wicket when fully set and the bowlers were pushed back on the ropes. But, at Chennai, she played to her full potential, hitting 23 boundaries and eight sixes in her power-packed double century. She and Smrithi toyed with the South African bowlers and struck boundaries almost at will and ensured that their side got off to a superb start.  The duo not only scored runs but also kept the scoreboard ticking at a furious pace, with their 292-run stand coming in only 312 balls, at a strike rate of 93.58, which is almost unheard of in Test cricket. It was only due to the blistering pace at which they scored the runs that India could finish with an unbelievable total of 525/4 in 98 overs, at the close of first day’s play.

Richa scored a quick-fire 86 off 90 balls, which maintained the momentum of the Indian innings after the departure of Shafali. The significance of this effort can be gauged from the fact that India could win the match only in the last session. The Indian innings resembled a combination of Steve Waugh’s Australians, who targeted a scoring rate in excess of 4 runs an over to give their bowlers an even chance to bowl out the opposition twice, and Bazball cricket, where the side played without the fear of failure and with the intention to win. This paid off splendidly as the side played like true champions, always looking for winning the match.

Harmanpreet Kaur
Harmanpreet Kaur in action in the Chennai Test. File photo: PTI/R Senthil Kumar

A special word of praise is due to Harmanpreet, who marshalled her resources efficiently. When South Africa were forced to follow on after conceding a lead of 337 runs in the first innings, they put up a resolute performance with captain Laura Wolvaardt and Sune Luus involved in a big stand for the second wicket. As the shadows lengthened and time neared close of play on the third day, it appeared that the duo would remain unseparated at the close of play. At this juncture, Harmanpreet brought herself into the attack and immediately struck, dismissing Luus by knocking back her stumps. This enabled India to start the last day on a positive note, which ultimately led to her side winning the Test. She had performed a similar role in the Test against Australia, where her dismissals of Tahlia McGrath and Alyssa Healy on day three swung the game decisively in India’s favour.

One should also compliment the South Africans for putting up a strong fight that denied India a win till the last session. They were severely handicapped on account of lack of experience of playing with the red ball as their domestic cricket circuit makes provision only for limited overs matches for women. Plus they had to adjust to the heat of humidity of Chennai and the challenges of tackling a top quality Indian spin attack. But they displayed grim determination and superb fighting skills to keep India at bay for more than four sessions in the second innings, till they succumbed in the last. Their positive attitude and fighting spirit won them many admirers among the Indians as well.

To conclude, one must congratulate the International Cricket Council (ICC) and all national cricket boards for the unwavering support extended by them to promote the cause of women’s cricket. The merger of the International Women’s Cricket Council with the ICC in 2005 was the seminal event that led to the resurgence of this sport which was languishing due to shortage of resources and patronage till then. The impressive advances that the women’s game made during the last two decades is only on account of the generous assistance received from the administrators of the men’s game. They took women’s cricket under their wings and nurtured it well and now this sport is all set to carve a niche for itself in the international arenas well.

It's high time we started celebrating the achievements of our women cricketers also. This will motivate them to scale greater shifts and win bigger laurels in the years to come. Hats off to Harmanpreet & Co. They have made us proud.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a retired bureaucrat)

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