On December 10, 2016, in her first ever match at the Women’s Big Bash League, Harmanpreet Kaur played a shot that left Adam Gilchrist stunned. She went down on her knees, against a left-arm fast bowler, and hit a wide ball over extra cover for six. “That’s as good a cricket shot you are going to see,” gushed Gilchrist, as the bowler just started laughing.
The shot and the reaction went viral but only a few thousand people would have seen that live, despite the match being broadcast in India.
On February 21, 2017, with India needing eight runs from the last two balls against South Africa in the final of the ICC World Cup Qualifier in Colombo, Harmanpreet Kaur hit a six over mid-wicket and then took two runs off the last ball to seal India’s highest successful run-chase in ODIs. She threw her bat in the air in celebration and let out a roar that would have been heard across the bay in India.
She earned plaudits for that knock – the innings that re-established her status as the best hitter in this Indian team. But only a few thousand people would have seen that live.
But on Thursday, at 14:23 pm local time in Derby, United Kingdom, when Harmanpreet Kaur walked out to bat in the semi-final of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 against the mighty Australians, the stage was bigger. The audience stretched far and wide across the world. It was being beamed live to the living rooms in India, at primetime. This was, as yet, the biggest stage she had to bat on in her impressive career so far.
Two hours and 23 minutes later, when Kaur walked off the pitch, unbeaten after scoring 171 runs in 115 balls, she had the world at her feet. Kaur, with the world watching, had done enough to take India to the final of the World Cup for only the second time in their history.
“The innings from Kaur was incredible, we just couldn’t stop her,” is how the Australian captain and the world’s best batter, Meg Lanning, would later describe that innings.
A sedate start
The innings started for Kaur, like most innings in this World Cup have started for India. Except Smriti Mandhana’s rapid-fire innings against England on the first day, none of the Indian top-order batters had taken the game by the scruff of its neck in the 7 matches preceding this semi-final. It was good, old-fashioned accumulation to start with and playing catch-up later. That’s how Punam Raut and Deepti Sharma and Mithali Raj were getting those runs. And that is how Kaur started off against Australia.
In the first few balls she faced, she laid down the marker though. First, glorious cover drive, with the bat forming the perfect arc and second, a straight drive where the ball went as straight as it could without hitting the stumps – and it was evident then that Kaur wanted to make this opportunity count.
After an innings filled with 20 fours and seven sixes, those two shots still stand out, not just because of the sheer class, but because of what they foretold: This was going to be her day.
For the first half of her innings, however, she gave the impression that she was content taking the singles and doubles, getting her eye in, even if that meant she would play out dot balls. Her fifty came off 64 balls. Her first 72 balls fetched her 63 runs, six boundaries and one six off a free-hit in that duration.
Till that point of time, it was a good innings, that was taking India to a fighting total – we have been here before. Kaur, at that very instant, played the worst shot of her innings. Danced down the track, tried to hit the ball too hard, edged it, but it went behind the wicketkeeper for a boundary. If she had got out then, it would have been an all-too-familiar tale of a good innings, bearing no fruit at the end for India.
And then began the madness. From 72 off 77 balls, she reached her 98 in 89 balls. And then the drama – a near-run out off the next ball, as she lost her temper against Deepti Sharma like a pressure cooker lost its whistle. She wouldn’t be denied her 100 though. If you thought that moment of fury was going to derail the knock, you couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The next 50 runs came in 26 balls. The last 21 runs came in eight balls.
A good innings had now waved at greatness in the rear-view mirror, and overtaken legendary status with ease. When it ended, it was – as described by every single analyst on air – one of the greatest ODI knocks of all time, gender be damned.
Every generation of cricket fans has an innings that come to define their love for the game, their adoration for a player. For Kapil Dev fans, it was the 175* in the 1983 World Cup. For Sachin Tendulkar’s fans, it was the desert-storm innings in Sharjah. For MS Dhoni fans, it was the final of the 2011 World Cup. Dev’s innings inspired a young Sachin to take up the game. Sachin’s innings inspired a young Mahi to become a cricketer. Men’s cricket has plenty of tales in that regard.
Years from now, however, when in a World Cup far, far away a girl from some small town in India would represent India, because she saw Harmanpreet Kaur play that innings against the World Champions, at the biggest stage the game had to offer. Those 171 runs did not just take India to the final, they brought the rest of India to the World Cup – to watch in awe of a cricketer redefine what the sport could mean to young girls in the country.