Nine runs.

That’s how close India were to a World Cup trophy.

In a spectacle worthy of a title clash, India fell short by a very small margin. For almost 93 overs in the match, India were on the cusp of unprecedented glory. They were punching their way through tight spots and looked set for victory. Whenever England gained the upper hand, different Indian players stood up to be counted. The finish line was within sight.

To come so close and lose, after needing only 38 runs with seven wickets in hand, is heartbreaking. Except, it shouldn’t be. It should be heart-touching, instead.

The question is simple: Should Indian cricket remember this World Cup as the time the team fell nine runs short or as the time when an Indian team, considered underdogs, went on a rampaging, unprecedented run to the final and came as close as nine runs to being world champions?

The answer, to borrow the words from captain Mithali Raj, is also simple, “The girls weren’t experienced enough to do it. But the way they have fought all along the tournament is very heartwarming. The Indian women’s team has a very bright future.”

Raising the game

Did you know, the previous edition of the World Cup was held in India? Australia won the 2013 World Cup, beating West Indies in the final by a massive margin of 114 runs. Hosts India, on the other hand, finished at the bottom of the table in their group and failed to qualify for Super Sixes.

A lot has changed about and for Indian women’s cricket since.

In 2013, the highest run-getter for India, Harmanpreet, was ranked 17th in the tournament batting charts. In 2017, two of the top 10 run-scorers are Indians with Mithali Raj finishing second on the table with only one run less than leader Tammy Beaumont. In 2013, no Indian bowler got into double digits. In 2017, Deepti Sharma and Poonam Yadav finished fifth and sixth on the highest wicket-takers table. In 2013, barely anyone in the country noticed or watched the World Cup despite being hosts. In 2017, they made everyone sit up and take notice of their achievement.

In short, this Indian team went where no other had gone before. Not just a final, but a tense, closely- fought, final. The last time India finished runners-up, Australia humbled them by 98 runs. This time, as millions watched on TV and thousands cheered on at Lord’s, India came as close as nine runs.

This increase in viewership and following can be attributed to various factors – live telecasts, news coverage, social media. But none of this would have mattered had the team not raised the quality of their game. All the wishes on Twitter and ads on Star Sports would count for nothing if Mithali Raj and team didn’t put up a performance to remember, including what will go down as one of the greatest ODI knocks by an Indian.

Right from the start of the World Cup exactly a month back, India were in for a memorable run as anyone who saw their first match would agree.

In their opener, India stunned hosts and eventual champions England. Coming back from a six-month injury layoff, Smriti Mandhana with the support of Punam Raut and Raj put up a superb 281 and then the Indian bowlers and fielders combined to overcome them by 35 runs. In the next three matches against lower-ranked West Indies, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, India put in expected, winning performances featuring a century from Mandhana, a fifer from Ekta Bisht, and all-round effort by the extremely talented Deepti Sharma.

Celebrate the path-breaking campaign

But it was happened in the next two matches and how India responded to the situation that should go down in history books as the defining trait of India’s unmatched 2017 World Cup campaign.

First, India collapsed abjectly against South Africa to go down by 115 runs. Then, they failed to stop holders Australia and lost by eight wickets. Back-to-back big losses later, they had to beat former champions New Zealand in a virtual quarterfinal to have any hope of reaching the semis. You should believe what happened next:

India beat New Zealand by 186 runs – the highest margin of victory by runs in the World Cup.

Indi beat Australia by 36 runs after Harmanpreet Kaur smashed an unbeaten 171 to reach the final, for only the second time.

The final almost followed the same script, for almost 90% of the match. It was that 10% – the seven wickets that fell for 28 runs – that ultimately decided the World Cup. But this 10% should not define India’s campaign at the World Cup.

Here’s what should.

Mithali Raj, the captain who lead from the front with 409 runs with three half-centuries and a century.

The talented top order, all of whom who scored a hundred – Mandhana against West Indies, Punam Raut in a lost cause against Australia, Raj against New Zealand in a must-win clash and Harmanpreet (if that can be called just a century) in the semifinal.

Deepti Sharma, a genuine, capable, gifted all-rounder who scored 216 runs and took 12 wickets along with several stunning pieces of fielding. And she’s only 19.

A well-rounded spin attack that was the team’s strength even in England, where one player can replace another and still fit right among the wickets.

Jhulan Goswami, the record-breaking, time-defying seamer at the top of her game at 34 who bowled two brilliant spells with the new and old ball in the final.

Not to mention, the big-game mentality that many previous teams lacked, the one that Raj called for after the two losses.

Even before a single ball was bowled in the final, this team was revolutionary. Beating the Top Three to reach the World Cup final, after coming through a Qualifier Tournament (even though because of factors other than performance) is phenomenal. They may not walked out as world champions, but the Indian team walked away as the heroes. Heroes this cricket-obsessed country needs, and heroes women’s sport in India deserves.