20 July 2017
Derby, England

On the day India was to take on Australia in the semi-final of the ICC Women’s World Cup, the conditions were overcast. A sense of deja vu filled Jhulan Goswami. Twelve years earlier, bad weather had come in the way of an India–Australia World Cup match in South Africa. Except, it had been a league-stage game and the Indian team had probably prayed for a washout. Besides, that was Jhulan’s first World Cup and it hadn’t mattered much even if she bowled badly; the experienced Neetu David would have rustled up some magic and Jhulan could have enjoyed being at cricket’s showpiece event to the fullest….

This was different, though. Jhulan was now the world’s leading wicket-taker among women in one-day internationals (ODIs) and the only playing member from the 2005 team that had made it to the final, apart from Mithali Raj, India’s captain on both occasions. It was the morning of the semi-final and history beckoned India after what seemed like light years. Australia was as unbeatable and tenacious as they were in 2005. The five-time world champions were on top of their game....

Once the rain stopped completely and a final inspection was done, the game was ready to be played but as a 42-overs-a-side contest where India won the toss and chose to bat first....

Halfway through the innings, with India barely managing four runs an over, they lost Mithali, who enroute her 61-ball 36 had become the tournament’s highest run-getter….

In the last ball of the 35th over, Harmanpreet Kaur, batting on 98, ran for a single and then wanted a second on seeing that the fielder wasn’t quick enough. Deepti Sharma had done well so far in her supporting role, and said no to the second run initially, but Kaur had set out for it already. As the fielder at midwicket threw the ball at the keeper’s end, and then the keeper to the bowler’s end, Sharma just about made her ground. A couple added to the scoreboard and it marked Harmanpreet Kaur’s century. But she was unhappy.

Kaur was angry, and jerked open her helmet and flung it away, and shouted at her younger partner for not watching the ball carefully enough, even as the third umpire checked for a run-out. Sharma, playing her first World Cup, a semi-final at that, stared in disbelief. She had taken the second run after all. It would be terrible to cry because the game was on TV, prime time back in India no less. As the light went green and the electronic scoreboard flashed ‘Not Out’, Kaur walked up to her partner, put a hand over her shoulder, smiled and offered an apology. Her first fifty runs had come off 64 balls, the second off 26 and she was far from done.

Soon after, here’s what Kaur made of the five balls of the 37th over, bowled by Ashleigh Gardner: 6, 6, 4, 4, 2. If anybody still had any questions about why Kaur was the first Indian, man or woman, to play in the Big Bash League, well, she had given them a reply-all.

That day, her timing was so sublime and her stroke-play was so powerful that it made jaws drop. Her teammates had watched Kaur bat big in the past too—in domestic and international outings.

But this was against Australia and on live TV. For the first time, the rest of the world was watching too

Like the young man returning home from work, stuck in traffic, who pulled out his cellphone to log on to Hotstar after hearing an update in his cab’s radio. Like the confectionary store owner who went, ‘Yaar, yeh ek ladki maar rahi hai aise? (That’s a girl hitting like this?)’ amidst his evening sales. Like the countless people still in their offices who wriggled up from their seats to turn on the TV to find out what the hell was going on because Harman’s knock had stirred up awe all over social media by then.

Eight years after her international debut, India had finally discovered Harmanpreet Kaur….

…India finished at 281 for 4 from their 42 overs, their highest total ever against Australia. Harmanpreet Kaur remained unbeaten on 171 from 115 deliveries (20 fours and 7 sixes). As Kaur dragged her 5 feet 3 inch frame, with a visible limp, towards the dressing room, the sun shone bright in Derbyshire.

That knock made Harmanpreet Kaur enter the record books. Hers was only the second 150-plus knock played by an Indian woman in ODIs. It was the fourth highest individual score in Women’s World Cups and the highest by an Indian. Almost 71 per cent of Kaur’s runs had come in boundaries and she’d contributed to 60 per cent of the team total. But numbers apart, the way she’d batted was what made her innings so significant. It was the kind of knock that forced you to drop whatever you were doing and just watch. It was the kind of knock that was going to be spoken about for ages because it was a superlative innings, irrespective of gender.

It was the kind of knock that had in it the potential to turn women’s cricket around for the better.

Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket In India: By Suprita Das, HarperCollins Publishers India, 272 pages, ₹499.
Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket In India: By Suprita Das, HarperCollins Publishers India, 272 pages, ₹499.

Excerpted from Free Hit by Suprita Das, with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India.

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