If there ever was one single performance to pinpoint exactly when something changed in a sport, Harmanpreet Kaur’s unbeaten 171 against defending champions Australia in the semi-final of the 2017 World Cup would be top of the list for women’s cricket in India.
Even as it was being played, back on July 20 in 2017, long-time watchers of the sport envisioned in real-time the impact it would have. This was the knock that forced people to sit up, take notice and appreciate women’s cricket in India.
At the time, India was just setting up the total, there was no guarantee that India would win the match or reach the finals. But by the sheer quality of the batting on display, Indian cricket had crossed a threshold.
Now the Punjab-based Harmanpreet is no stranger to knocks with high strike-rates. It was her big-hitting ability that saw India win the 2017 World Cup qualifier final with a last-over six and is easily the most hard-hitting batter in the Indian team. It was this batting style that saw her become the first Indian to play the Big Bash League in Australia, the catalyst for the knock in hindsight.
Her bat-swing is as clean as they come and is the signature element of her batting.
But this ballistic knock is not just iconic for the big hits or the huge score, but also because of the occasion and the opposition it came against.
A quick refresher:
India were in the semi-finals after a superb turnaround in the group stages. After stunning England in the opener and beating West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, India went down to South Africa and Australia. The last match against former champions New Zealand was a virtual quarter-final and India notched up a record 186-run win to become surprise semi-finalists.
But taking on defending World Champions Australia in the World Cup semi-final, who had beaten them by eight wickets days before, was not going to be an easy task. The openers were back in the pavilion in Derby, after captain Mithali Raj won the toss and opted to bat first.
And in walked Harmanpreet with the scoreboard reading 35/2 in the 10th over. With Raj at the other end, they built a steady partnership bringing up the team 100 in 25 overs. Then Raj got out and Deepti Sharma came in and got the best seat in the house.
What was the most striking part of Harmanpreet’s knock? There could be several answers to that, but one that stands out most is the pacing of the innings… the way she accelerated after she reached her century and the latter onslaught that left all those watching gobsmacked.
Harmanpreet’s final figures read 171 not out off 115 balls in a 42-over match, with 20 fours and seven sixes.
But near the halfway mark of her innings, she was on 41 off 60 balls. Her first 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. (More on that later)
Her second 50 came in 26 balls and the third... off only 17. The last 21 runs came in just eight balls.
Let’s put it this way, after reaching her 100 in 90 balls, she scored 71 runs in the next 25 balls. She plundered 103 runs of her last 40 balls. That’s a strike rate of 257.50.
Talk about stepping on the accelerator.
The trigger, as it turned out, was a Free Hit midway through India’s innings. In the 27th over, the ball slipped from spinner Kristen Beams’ hands and a no-ball was called. The ensuing Free Hit saw Harmanpreet step out of her crease and smack a classic Six.
“If you look at the tournament till that point … I hadn’t stepped out and hit a six. So when I got that free hit, that was exactly what I wanted to do. Anyone can step out and hit a six, of course, but you need to know whether you can pull it off on that particular day. As soon as the ball hit the bat, that shot gave me a lot of confidence,” she was quoted as saying in the book The Fire Burns Blue.
And then the barrage began.
So focused was she, that her reaction after reaching her century – barely making it as Deepti Sharma hesitated in running between the wickets – was not one of celebration, immediately. The anger she radiated is still searing a hole somewhere in Derby as she gave Sharma an earful which reduced the youngster to tears.
But that outburst was soon forgotten as the last 10 overs yielded 119 for India. She cleared the boundary with ease, hardly mishitting anything and helped India reach 281 in 42 overs. The bowlers stepped up too as Australia were bowled out for 245 and India were in the final for the second time after 2005 (where they had lost to Australia.)
A knock for the ages
Mithali Raj called it the “greatest knock by an India woman player.” In fact, one can say so without a gender qualifier. Against the world champions and undisputed best team of the game, Harmanpreet played one of the greatest knocks by an Indian in World Cup cricket. Arguably, right up there with Kapil Dev’s 175 against Zimbabwe in 1983.
And more importantly, unlike the Kapil epic, this was played on prime-time Indian television, in a World Cup that was for the first time marketed extensively by the International Cricket Council and a time when social media was a second scorecard for sports.
It got the necessary eyeballs, which led to more visibility and investment in women’s cricket. The final and Lord’s was packed, TV ratings were an all-time high in India and even in a loss, the profile of the women’s game climbed new heights. Given India’s position in world cricket fan-base, it meant an overall boost for the game. The effects of it are still being seen today as women cricketers are seen in more brand commercials, a basic women’s T20 challenge is established in lieu of women’s IPL and the international matches are actually live streamed or telecast (for the most part.)
And, really, it can all be traced to that one Harmanpreet Kaur knock. The girl from Moga, who once wanted to put up a poster of Virender Sehwag on her wall, ensured that she would be the poster-child for women’s cricket for years to come.
You can watch highlights of the knock and the match overall below:
Here’s Harmanpreet Kaur talking about an anecdote before the match: