Dear Mithali and Jhulan,
I have been intending to write to you for a while now, but was struggling to find the appropriate words to describe my mixed emotions after what was a splendid yet incomplete Women’s World Cup 2017 for India. So I thought I’d give my thoughts a little time to settle down and also leave you to soak in the belated adulation that has come the team’s way.
This team’s potential to break barriers was evident on social media from the moment you beat England on the tournament’s opening day, and Harmanpreet Kaur’s unbeaten 171 against Australia in the semifinal left everyone in a frenzy. People who were indifferent at the start suddenly tuned in to watch their ‘new team’ play. That was encouraging, but it needs a different level of investment for fans to turn up early morning at the airport to welcome you. Wednesday (July 26) in Mumbai was undeniable proof something had changed.
Lest we forget, 25,000 people had seen Shanta Rangaswamy’s team record the first Test win in 1976 in Patna. But for various reasons the popularity of women’s cricket in India had waned over the last few decades.
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Things have not come easy for you both. Very few saw you play at your peak. Had the World Cup not been a success, the chances of the two of you ending your careers without much notice would have been a reality.
Your achievements were restricted to brief scores, if at all, in the newspapers. So unaware are the general public and media about the volume of your achievements that they struggle to go beyond stale questions while interacting with you two. One of you made your debut in the previous millennium, and the other came soon after that. Together you have been the pillars of this team for more than half a decade. You have seen factious dressing rooms of the past, and you ensured that the youngsters who came under your watch felt more relaxed. Either of you could have hung up your boots at different stages of this journey, but you both pushed on. Sometimes for the sake of yourselves, but most of the times for the sake of the team. You belong to the amateur era, but your professional attitude helped build the team for the future. Both of you had spoken about it elaborately to Wisden India in 2015.
You knew this was your last chance at glory, and you did everything in your control to get the team ready. You’ve both played a big role in getting Tushar Arothe as coach, Biju George as fielding coach, Rashmi Pawar as sports therapist and Trupti Bhattacharya as manager for the last two months. You ensured that the team stayed as a unit, and you delivered on the field too. Tactically, Mithali was one of the best captains in the tournament. But to come so close and fall short by nine runs has to hurt. The 2005 final defeat must have been painful too, but there you were done in by Karen Rolton’s brilliant innings, and you knew you would have another chance. This time, you were two good shots away from a title.
This was a perfect setting for you both. A world title at the home of cricket for two of the biggest servants of the game was the fairytale waiting to happen. Both of you also raised your games for the occasion. Jhulan, your spell earned you standing applause from some of us in the media box. Mithali, you looked in the zone right from the first ball you middled. Destiny was with you before misjudgment and chaos allowed England a back-door entry.
Mithali, you are so intelligent and mentally strong that perspective could be your middle name. Jhulan, you are known to be that one person to whom everyone gravitates in the dressing room. Every single member of the team speaks about Mithali di and Jhulu di with admiration. So, to see both of you try your hardest to keep your emotions in check while interacting with the media soon after the defeat was quite moving.
Nevertheless, this is a big moment in the history of women team sports in India, as Mithali pointed out at the press conference in Mumbai. A lot of people were surprised by the performance, but a few of us, who have religiously followed the progress of the team for the last few years, got goosebumps seeing the overwhelming reception.
We have had many conversations around how and when the landscape of women’s cricket in India would change. The underlying theme of every series we followed was where was it leading us to in the big picture. We were preparing ourselves for what has finally unfolded. We knew, like you both, that a World Cup win could change the dynamics. Some of us had visualised watching India lift the World Cup on the famous Lord’s balcony.
Our raw belief that this team could create something special was not unfounded. The intent was there when a teenaged Smriti Mandhana made her debut soon after a bad 2013 World Cup campaign at home. Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Shikha Pandey, Deepti Sharma, Sushma Verma and Poonam Yadav – all key members of the current team – followed suit. Veda returned to the fray in 2015, and Poonam Raut came back earlier this year. They along with you two, Harmanpreet and Ekta Bisht brought experience to the squad. With 17 wins in your last 18 One-Day Internationals before coming to England, you had the momentum too.
A few of us criticised the losses against South Africa and Australia because it looked like the team had suddenly forgotten the formula that had brought success over the last few months. But the way you fought back against New Zealand and Australia made us really believe that India was now one good game away from creating history. This is why the loss in the final is tough to digest.
I have watched the highlights of the match over and over to get an understanding of what exactly happened. There are some images that keep flashing in front of me.
I saw tension on Mithali’s face for the first time when Raut and Veda took a brace to move the score to 171. After that the camera kept focussing on you, and it was not difficult to read your thoughts. Did it transmit anxiety to the incoming batters sitting around you? The other image that keeps returning to my mind is Veda swinging her bat in frustration after Sushma got bowled playing a sweep shot against Alex Hartley. That was the first indication of panic to the public, and Anya Shrubsole capitalised on that moment of indiscretion in the cauldron of 25,000 people.
What if Sushma had taken all the chances that came her way behind the stumps? What if Deepti bowled the penultimate over instead of Shikha? What if Mithali’s spikes had not got stuck while going for a sharp run that led to her dismissal? What if Deepti had come ahead of Sushma in the chase? What if?
I know hindsight is easy, but the margin of defeat is such that these questions are going to be replayed in the mind of all who were invested in this team far longer than the duration of the World Cup
That, however, takes nothing away from both of your contributions to the game. Mithali said after the final that Jhulan “is a player India should celebrate.” India have woken up to finally celebrate women’s cricket. This revolution, possibly, could be your legacies.
As the world’s highest run-getter and wicket-taker respectively, both of you have left many wonderful memories. Thank you for that, and I wish you more power in the twilight of your careers.
In your corner, always,