The Women’s T20 Challenge final between two sides led by India’s two captains began with the sense of irony. A team named Velocity was struggling against speed – Harmanpreet Kaur either pulled off a big bluff at the toss or read the conditions quickly once the match started. After saying medium pacers have been ineffective in the previous matches, she peppered the Velocity top order with a barrage of quicks.
In the eighth over, when captain Mithali Raj played an uncharacteristic hoick to be dismissed, Supernovas pacers had taken four of the wickets to fall. The scoreboard read 37/5. The match was in danger of being a one-sided affair, that much even Raj admitted at the end.
Only, by the time she was giving her post-match interview, she had a smile on her face (having just applauded her team and her opponents) because the final of the much-anticipated tournament turned out to be a blockbuster in more ways than one.
Supernovas, having won the match off the last ball with four wickets in hand, posed with the trophy after being crowned champions but really, the women’s game was the true winner. The most-repeated cliche in the cricketing lexicon came alive, thanks mostly two stars of the game at differing stages of their careers: Amelia Kerr and Harmanpreet Kaur.
The 18-year-old from New Zealand walked out to bat when the camera was panning to the stands, showing hundreds of fans making their way in. It had taken some time but the stadium was starting to fill in and, at that time it seemed they would not have a good contest to watch with Velocity crumbling under pressure of the final.
But Kerr, along with Sushma Verma, had other ideas. The duo did not go into a shell and instead played positive, yet not reckless, cricket. They ran hard between the wickets and picked up the occasional boundary. While Verma finished the innings with the better strike rate, it was Kerr who provided the momentum early on to that partnership. The teenager, who owns the world record for the highest ever ODI score by a woman (232* vs Ireland), showed why she is so highly rated as an all-rounder. When she was dismissed in the 19th over for a run-a-ball 38, Velocity had finally found momentum.
With the ball, she was once again brilliant. Mixing up her pace and length, her leg-spinners and googlies, she did not give any easy runs to the Supernovas batters early on in her spell. Her first two overs went for 12 runs (that included one streaky boundary) and she had dismissed the in-form Jemimah Rodrigues. Raj trusted the youngster to bowl two overs at the death and in the first of those, she gave only seven runs when Kaur was on the rampage (more on that in a bit). And, in the last over, she got the prized wicket of the Supernovas captain – a reward for brave wrist-spin bowling. Even if the target was eventually overhauled, the courage shown by Kerr with the bat and ball in the final was one of the success stories of the night for the women’s game.
When Kaur came out to bat after Jemimah Rodrigues’ dismissal, the scoreboard read 53/2 at the end of 10 overs. At that point of their innings, Velocity were 50/5. Supernovas were still in command, but a couple of wickets then would level things up. And that was, indeed what happened.
With Kaur yet to face a ball, Priya Punia became the third wicket to fall. Not to worry, Supernovas still had the most potent middle order. Nat Sciver joined Kaur and Sophie Devine was yet to bat.
Except, in the 12th and 14th overs, Bangladesh youngster Jahanara Alam send the off-stumps of both those overseas stars for a walk. Suddenly, at the time Velocity’s innings had gained momentum, Supernovas began losing their steam. Raj’s underdogs were well and truly on top.
But that’s the situation Kaur thrives in. Throw her in the deep end in a high pressure game, she invariably produces her best.
At the end of 14th over, she was on four off 10 balls and the required rate was 9.66. She hit 13 runs off the 15th over bowled by Ekta Bisht, and retained strike. She hit 13 runs off the 16th over bowled by Alam and retained strike. She hit seven runs off 17th over bowled by Kerr and retained strike. She hit 15 runs off the 18th over bowled by Devika Vaidya and... yes, you guessed right: retained strike. The required rate was now run-a-ball. She brought up her 50 off 34 balls – 46 off those coming in 24 balls, including three sixes that highlighted that wonderful bat-swing of hers yet again.
Kerr, as mentioned above, dismissed Kaur off the last over to provide hope for Velocity. It was not quite a job well finished by the Supernovas’ captain but as she said after the match, in hindsight, she was more happy when Radha Yadav hit the winning runs because an Indian youngster finished the game.
This much can be said. No one in the women’s game, arguably, has a sense of occasion better than Harmanpreet Kaur. In the semi-final of the 2017 World Cup against defending champions Australia, her 171* captured the country’s imagination. In the first match of a standalone World T20 – when the women’s game made it’s definitive move away from the men’s to find its own feet – she hit a century in the opener against New Zealand to get the tournament the kick-start it craved.
And in the final of what is likely to be a watershed tournament for women’s cricket (not just in India, mind you), she once again stepped up when the odds were against her and provided a scintillating finish.
Give her the spotlight, and Harmanpreet Kaur makes magic happen.