Before India left for the World Cup in England, captain Mithali Raj and coach Tushar Arothe had addressed a press conference at the Sharad Pawar Indoor Cricket Academy in Bandra. There were only a handful of media persons in the room and it was a short conference.

Compare that with when the team arrived as runners-up 45 days later. There was a large group of fans with banners at the airport and the press conference was in a five-star hotel’s ballroom packed with journalists.

That difference in reception from the media in 45 days is a microcosm of the difference MithalI Raj and Co made at the Women’s World Cup. 2017 was a watershed year for Indian women’s cricket, in terms of both performance and impact.

In their record-breaking, rampaging run at the World Cup – and the World Cup Qualifier and Quadrangular series before that – the Indian women’s team got a global stage to showcase their potential. And they put up a performance to match the scale.

There was live telecast of all matches for the first time, and sold-out stadiums and social media. But all of it would have been meaningless had the team not put up a spectacle to reach the final at Lord’s.

“The World Cup itself was such a showcase for women sport in general and women’s cricket in particular,” Mamatha Maben, former India captain, told The Field. “People got see and realise that women indeed played quality cricket and some of it was of the highest calibre. Plus, India’s World Cup campaign was huge back home, nothing like anybody dreamed of, so all in all a big year for the game.”

Another former India cricketer Sudha Shah said, “I think the whole world watched these matches and I think that helped the girls. There is recognition now, people are talking about women’s cricket and you feel proud that people have finally recognised the achievement.”

It was a big year indeed, with India reaching the finals of all three tournaments they played and winning two of them. There were no Tests or Twenty20 internationals, but India went on to win 16 of their 20 matches this year.

The year that was

India started the year playing the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifiers in February, as they were forced to forfeit points in the ICC Women’s ODI championship for not playing a bilateral series with Pakistan. But in a way, playing the qualifiers was a shot in the arm for the team as there were a host of solid individual performances.

But the best was perhaps the final against a South Africa. It was a teaser of what Harmanpreet Kaur is capable of with the bat.

Chasing a target of 245, India were nine down left staring at an impossible target of eight runs of the last two balls. But Harmanpreet clobbered the penultimate ball for six and then sprinted for two runs taking India home by just one wicket off the last ball. And this match was streamed live. It was exhilarating to be able to watch her play this innings.

Incidentally, the vice-captain came into the tournament after a successful stint in the Women’s Big Bash League – the first Indian to play there. She made 296 runs and picked up six wickets in her for the Sydney Thunder, in which she was also the team’s player of the tournament and impressed Adam Gilchrist with her shot-making.

About two months later, came the Quadrangular series in South Africa, involving Ireland and Zimbabwe. It was a precursor to the heroics at the World Cup as India went on an record-breaking streak, beating South Africa by eight wickets in the final.

It was in this series that Jhulan Goswami became leading wicket-taker in one-day internationals. She overtook Australia’s Cathryn Fitzpatrick mark of 180. She currently has 195.

Youngsters Deepti Sharma and Punam Raut put together a world record partnership of 320 runs for the opening wicket in an ODI against Ireland. The duo not only became the first pair to go past 300 runs in women’s ODIs, the total of 358 was also India’s highest in ODIs. Sharma’s 188 runs off 167 balls is also the second highest score in ODI history.

World Cup, a revolution

But the highlight of the year the all-important World Cup. The wins in Sri Lanka and South Africa notwithstanding, India were underdogs in England. Even Raj considered a semi-final run to be a good goal in a format where they had to play every team, but reiterated that a win would be revolutionary. Well, India came as close as nine runs to being world champions but the revolution was out into motion nonetheless.

In their opener, India stunned hosts and eventual champions England thanks to the elegant show of Smriti Mandhana. In the next three matches they beat 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 Sharma.

But then came two big back-to-back big losses to South Africa and Australia which meant that they had to beat former champions New Zealand in a virtual quarterfinal to have any hope of reaching the semis.

But what happened next was perhaps the best indication of what this Indian team is capable of.

In a do-or-die India beat New Zealand by 186 runs – the highest margin of victory by runs in the World Cup. The White Ferns were bundled out for just 79 in a tall chase of 266, with Rajeshwari Gayakwad returning incredible figures of 5/15, the best figures by an Indian bowler in the Women’s World Cup. raj had scored a century and Veda Krishnamurthy plundered 70 off 45 balls, the fastest by an Indian batter in a Women’s World Cup.

In the semi-final, India faced defending champions, world No 1, and finalists in six out of the previous eight World Cups, Australia. But history notwithstanding, India stunned them by 36 runs, thanks to an unbeaten, scintillating 171 by Harmanpreet. This was only the second time India were in a final, having lost to Australia back in 2005.

There is so much to still say about that Harmanpreet assault, but maybe the numbers can say it best:

  • She came in when India were struggling at 35 for 2 in 9.2 overs, India finished with 281 in 42 overs
  • Her 171 off 115 balls is the third-highest score in the World Cup and fifth-highest overall
  • She smashed 20 fours and seven sixes in her unbeaten knock
  • She reached her first fifty off 64 balls, her second came off another 26, and her third off a barely believable 17.

In the final against England, India were in with a chance for almost 90% of the match. But then came Anya Shrubsole and the seven wickets that fell for 28 runs, which meant that India finished as runners-up, but only by nine runs. And it also meant that no one would ever dare ask Raj or any other cricketer in the team who their favourite male player was.

But despite the runners-up run, there were plenty of positives to take back, the overwhelming response to the team on their return not the least. A procession of cash prizes, promotions, felicitations, even biopics followed. There were calls for a women’s Indian Premier League and the spotlight on domestic cricket increased, giving the grassroots game some much-needed coverage.

However, India has not played a single international match since. Their central contracts are yet to be updated and there is no arrangement to telecast all matches (Not even all World Cup matches were shown on TV). In short, there is a lot of work to be done for Indian women’s cricket, to build on the terrific momentum of 2017.

The year 2018 will see Mithali Raj and Co start their campaign for the next World Cup in the ICC Women’s ODI Championship. First up, will be South Africa in February and then on a total of 21 ODIS across the next two years. On the wishlist though are more Tests and a lot more television coverage.