The Women’s T20 World Cup will end the same way it began – with a game between Australia and India. The two behemoths of the women’s game squared off for the curtain raiser and two and a half weeks down the line, they face each other for this year’s top cricketing honour – hoping to draw in a world record attendance at a women’s cricket match on the special occasion of International Women’s Day.
Australia have, in many ways, been seen as the pioneers for women’s cricket in the late noughties and the fact that there is so much media buzz surrounding the tournament, is majorly down to them. In the six previous editions of the tournament, they have won it on four occasions and many expect them to add a fifth to their crown of jewels.
But this article is not about them. Not completely, at least.
A loss for the Kangaroos in the World Cup final, rather than victory, would prove that the revolution they started a few decades ago is finally coming to fruition.
If India manage to pull off a miracle in their first-ever T20 World Cup final, it would be a remarkable achievement for the cricket-crazy nation with a population of over a billion people.
While their men’s team has grown leaps and bounds since their dismal show in the 2007 ODI World Cup, a revolution is still to be seen in the women’s side. And a win against Australia in Melbourne will be the perfect way to kick-start it.
A lot was spoken ahead of the team in the buildup to the tournament. A young and hungry side aiming to create a storm Down Under, but few expected them to reach the final and go into the game with an actual shout of beating the hosts in their own backyard.
Shafali Verma, the 16-year-old sensation who dressed up as a boy to play cricket in her childhood, lived up to her pre-tournament billing as an explosive opening batter. With 161 runs and an identical strike rate from her four games, she’s not only the fourth-highest run scorer in the tournament, but is also now leads the ICC T20 batting rankings.
For someone still in her teens, she’s undoubtedly won a billion hearts and regardless of the outcome on Sunday, will end the competition as one of the flag-bearers of women’s cricket for the next generation.
On the eve of Sunday’s final, Sports Gazette touched base with former Indian women’s cricketer Hemlata Kala. Having made 74 international appearances, she is one India’s most-capped female players of all time, and was lavishing in praise for Verma, who she believes is the reason why her side have breezed into the finals.
“Shafali has shown that age is just a number and she proved her selection wasn’t too early. She is fearless, doesn’t think who the opponent is and only plays her game. Because of her contribution in the powerplay, I think we were able to chase big scores,” Kala said.
No team is good without a solid leadership to match, and Kala was quick to give captain Harmanpreet Kaur due credit ahead of the final. According to her, performances of Verma and leg spinner Poonam Yadav have overshadowed the importance of Kaur in the setup.
Kala believes that her knock of 172 against Australia, which is regarded as one of the best individual performances in the history of women’s cricket, is one she cannot stop thinking of and that game could still be playing in the mind of the Aussies – giving the Indians a much needed boost on the eve of the finale. Some time to get it.
“Harman is a very good leader and her planning and strategies impressive. No one, including the Aussies, will ever forget her historical innings of 172 runs against them in 2017 World Cup,” stated Kala.
It’s not the only Kaur performance she remembers distinctly. In fact, in the last T20 World Cup two years ago, a match-winning century is proof of her showing up in the big games, and as the old cliché goes ‘Leading from the front.’
“Her leadership in the 2018 T20 World Cup and her century against New Zealand in 2018 showed that she has handled team very well and she succeeded in bringing all the players together as a unit,” she added.
“As the group is filled with youngsters, who admire and see Harry [Harmanpreet] as their idol, I think they’re inspired and take their performances to the next level which has brought about a drastic change in the team.”
It’s impossible to continue writing this article without mentioning leg spinner Yadav’s prowess. The 28-year-old leads the competition’s wickets tally despite playing one game fewer than the other semifinalists.
She’s dismissed nine batters and her entire World Cup economy rate is under 6 runs an over – phenomenal bowling numbers in any form of limited overs cricket today, let alone T20Is.
Sports Gazette spoke to her coach Manoj Kushwah who is seen by many as the man responsible for making her the bowling phenomenon she is today. He spoke about the transformation in Yadav’s career as she went from being an express leg spinner to someone who could turn the ball both ways to deceive batters.
“Her captain always gave her bowling during crunch situations and that’s what got Poonam used to bowling in tough conditions. Her height gives her added advantage as she uses the flight in her deliveries to invite players to step out and go for the big shot, but more often than not fail to read her,” said Kushwah.
“She has taken efforts to learn the googly, and due to her physique she found it difficult in the earlier days. But she showed patience and now you can see it reaping rewards.
“Initially, people used to say she won’t be successful as a leg spinner but she has proven them wrong and now she is India’s leading T20 wicket taker.”
While the players have deservedly grabbed the headlines, the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) must be given its due credit for giving women all over the country a platform to shine at the international stage. A small revolution may already have started with the 2017 50-over World Cup final defeat, but nothing sparks a storm quite like winning the T20 game’s top honour.
There are also talks of having an Indian Premier League (IPL) for women. Given how well it’s done to attract players and crowds from all over the world for the men’s game, there’s no reason as to why it can’t do the same for women.
Kala said: “The BCCI has supported girls financially as well and we had a small IPL-esque tournament already. If this time we lift the World Cup, I think that a proper IPL will get a green signal and spectators will turn in big numbers for these matches.
“In India it will be a new era for women’s cricket and I think BCCI will give all the support to upcoming players as they have done it from the day of merger [one body looking after the male and female players].”
The number of women taking up the sport has only been rising over the past few years. It’s not just quantity, but the quality of players has also increased, believes Kushwah. Having watched a number of teenage girls mould their skills, he believes that they’re on track to dominate the game in the coming years.
“This could be the start of Indian women dominating the cricketing world. A lot of this is happening because the match fees have been increased at all levels, contract systems are introduced and the best facilities have been provided to the players with the involvement of several ex pros,” said Yadav’s coach.
It almost goes without saying that 1.2 billion hearts will be in a precarious situation in the Indian subcontinent on Sunday. Everything often comes to a standstill in the country during World Cup finals and this one is expected to go no different.
It will be interesting to see whether the Indian women can end their voodoo in finals and come back from Melbourne with the coveted trophy.