In 2008, a skinny, callow teenager made some waves in India’s premier domestic women’s cricket competition, the Challenger Trophy. In her first game, she came in with her side at 87 for 7, and took them very close in a chase of 194. She remained unbeaten on 40, but her side fell 20 runs short. In the final, she contributed with the medium-pace she used to bowl back then, bowling 10 overs, economical and unchanged, in extreme heat, sneaking in a wicket as well.
A few months later, Harmanpreet Kaur found herself fast-tracked into the Indian team and on a flight to another continent, for the ICC Women’s World Cup 2009 in Australia.
I was a part of both tournaments myself, and got a ring-side view of Harmanpreet’s evolution. As the newbie, she would have little to say, but on the field she would shed her diffidence. While taking the field, she led the cheers, providing energy with vocal chords and flashes of brilliance both.
At first, she made the playing XI for her fielding more than anything, as one of the few of us to not look ungainly while sliding. Then, she announced herself as a potential match-winner.
In a must win game against Australia – it was her first televised match – at North Sydney Oval, Harmanpreet came in with three overs to go, with India needing to turn a competitive total into a winning one. The bowler was a certain Ellyse Perry, then a teenager herself, but already pushing for the title of fastest bowler in the world.
Harmanpreet’s response? To step out and smash Perry for six over midwicket.
She added two more fours in her brief innings of 19 not out off eight balls, and played her part in India plundering 73 off the last seven overs. It took them to 234, which they would then defend successfully.
Seven years later, on Saturday (December 10), Harmanpreet was back at the North Sydney Oval, back in a game that was being televised, back before unfamiliar audiences and in a pressure situation. Again, she announced herself as a potential match-winner. This time it was the Women’s Big Bash League that was made to sit up and notice.
Returning to the place where she began her career, it was as if Harmanpreet had begun another journey.
— Rebel WBBL (@RebelWBBL) December 10, 2016
The last six months have been eventful for Harmanpreet. Sydney Thunder, the inaugural WBBL champions, signing her for the second edition of the tournament, making her the first Indian – man or woman – to play in a high-profile domestic T20 league, was as historic as it was predictable. Handy with her offspin – she abandoned medium-pace a while ago – and more than a handful with the bat, it was simply a question of who would sign her once the Board of Control for Cricket in India cleared the way for its female players to participate in foreign leagues.
While she waited for the competition to start, she was named India’s T20 skipper and led them to an Asia Cup win, her strike-rate a standout in the team. She is set to finish 2016 as the second-highest run-getter in the format with 426 runs from 14 T20 International innings. Nobody has hit more sixes than her: 15 to Perry’s nine in second.
Having matured into a batter capable of both the big hits and long innings, on Saturday under lights, she showed just how valuable she is.
Under pressure, with her side needing a steep 88 off 62 balls chasing Melbourne Stars’ 147 for 8, she looked unhurried despite the obvious required run-rate and the not-so-obvious jet lag (she had arrived only the previous day).
Her strokeplay radiated confidence and ability, and at no point did her body language drop. It started traditionally: a cut, a cover drive, both for four. Then the paddle sweep came out, as did the aerial shots. Even when the legspin of Alana King claimed two of her partners, she remained unfazed.
Thunder needed 61 off 32 balls when Harmanpreet was joined by Naomi Stalenberg. The fifth-wicket pair had no time to waste. Harmanpreet slog swept the in-form King for a six, and Stalenberg chipped in with two fours.
Even if a few Thunder fans were giving up, the duo wasn’t.
Another tight over from King, meant that it was 45 from the last three, and 37 from two.
Stalenberg began with a four off left-arm seamer Gemma Triscari, and then brought Harmanpreet on strike. She responded by lofting a stunning drive for six over cover, a shot that had the bowler half laughing, half gaping in disbelief.
Six balls and 15 runs later, it was 22 needed off the last over. England’s Danielle Hazell, the offspinner, would bowl it.
Stalenberg began with a four, then Harmanpreet went over cover for six again, against the spin. 11 needed off two.
Harmanpreet tried to repeat the shot the next ball, but Hazell went very full, and conceded only one.
Meg Lanning’s Stars won, but all the talk after the game was about Harmanpreet’s 28-ball 47.
— Adam Gilchrist (@gilly381) December 10, 2016
“I like to play under pressure,” said Harmanpreet after the game. “I like the responsibility. After today’s knock, there will be more expectations, so it will be more challenging now.”
She seems to have stepped up to the challenge: In the return fixture on Tuesday, she made sure she finished the game. Her 4 for 27 kept Stars to 116 for 9, before the second six in a 21-ball 30 not out wrapped up the win in style.
“This is the place I first played a televised game, so I really like this ground,” she said of her love affair with North Sydney Oval after her tournament debut. “It was in the back of my mind that I have already played here, and I knew it’s a good batting wicket. So I was just trying to watch the ball well.”
Sydney, with its enviable diversity, has seen people from all lands call the city their own. At the North Sydney Oval, an Indian player, 14 hours and many miles and timezones from her motherland, made herself completely at home.