WOMEN’S WORLD CUP: Harmanpreet special ends Australia’s World Cup reign

Harmanpreet Kaur eviscerated Australia’s bowling attack on the way to unarguably the best knock of the Women’s World Cup as India upstaged the six-time champions – by 36 runs – to advance to the final of the tournament, where they meet hosts England on Sunday (July 23). Harmanpreet’s frenzied stay at the crease included 20 fours and 7 sixes in an undefeated essay of 171 from 115 balls. More importantly, her urge to use her big bat swing against everything in sight coincided with a match-turning flourish in the last 11 overs – wherein India amassed 139 runs, 108 coming off Harmanpreet’s willow. At the end of the 42 overs, India had 281 runs on board which proved to be too much for Australia, despite commendable counter-attack from Ellyse Villani (75 off 58) and Alex Blackwell (90 off 56)

There was a distinct progression to Harmanpreet’s knock – that started amidst a period when India found themselves in a bit of a quandary. Smriti Mandhana was sent packing in the first over by Megan Schutt. Mandhana’s opening partner Punam Raut showed a bit more restraint, but that lasted only till the pacers operated. The first sight of spin prompted Raut to attempt a slog sweep, only to hit it straight down the throat of Ellyse Villani at deep mid-wicket and gifting off-break bowler Ashleigh Gardner a wicket. Raut’s exit let Mithali Raj with another herculean task at hand, after the skipper won the toss and decided to put runs on the board in a high-pressure game.

Harmanpreet wasn’t extravagant with her strokes straight away, but there was consistency in her accurate timing of the ball. While Mithali played more cautiously between the two, Harmanpreet had the leeway to execute her drives off looseners every now and then. From 35 for 2 in the 10th over, the slow rescue work from the duo doubled India’s total in 20 overs. The partnership was solid, but still needed to push on if they intended to take India close to the psychological 200-run mark. Two overs later, Mithali became the highest scorer of the tournament but was undone by Kirsten Beams in the 25th over, who befuddled the India captain with a flat delivery that crashed onto the stumps. Even at this point, Harmanpreet was still motoring along harmlessly at 39 off 57 balls.

Ten balls after Raj exited the stage, came the release moment for India. Beams delivered an innocuous no-ball when the ball slipped out of her hand and travelled way over Harmanpreet’s head. The following free-hit ball was pitched up, and sent sailing over the deep mid-wicket fence – off a shot that saw Harmanpreet unleash a bat swing that would have brought a smile to MS Dhoni’s face. In the same over, Harmanpreet brought up her half-century off 64 balls – following which the bat swing became a far more regular feature of the carnage to follow.

Almost as if she sensed Harmanpreet’s intention to blowing the Australian bowlers out of the contest, the young Deepti Sharma smartly played the role of a side-kick, not taking any risks of her own. The first sign of acceleration came during the five-over period between the 28th and 32nd, when India added 32 runs to their total. India had 152 in 32 overs, and had a 200-plus target well in sight.

What followed however, was an absolute carnage that got India far more than they would’ve anticipated from that stage. Left-arm spinner Jess Jonassen was the earliest victim of a free-spirited Harmanpreet, who made advancing down the track her staple feet movement for the rest of the innings. The bat swing too was on full display as the anticipated target began to move into the high 220s.

From a 64-ball 51, Harmanpreet raced away to a 90-ball century in the 35th over, and was far from finished. Lanning threw the ball to Gardener in the hope of clipping Harmanpreet’s wings, but in vain. On the contrary, Harmanpreet ripped Gardener to shreds in a 23-run over. In the process, India went past the 200-run mark and still had five overs to bat on. Australia looked so far out of depth with the ball that Harmanpreet’s cramping issue appeared to be the only potent way of putting a lid on her brutal run-making. Unfortunately for them, she brushed that aside as well to continue to inflate her tally of boundaries.

By the time India’s innings ended, just 19 short of 300, Harmanpreet had the highest score by an Indian cricketer (both and female) in a World Cup knockout fixture. Harmanpreet finished on 171 – the last 120 of which came off just 55 balls.

Even from the position they secured at the halfway stage, there was nothing for India to take for granted. Senior pro Jhulan Goswami wasn’t just aware of the team’s predicament, but also knew exactly how to lead the way. She nicked a slice of limelight that shone brightly on Harmanpreet in the first half of the game, by delivering the ball of the tournament to dismiss Australia’s captain and best batter for an eight-ball duck. Lanning didn’t spot Jhulan’s leg-cutter – bowled with a scrambled seam – and was beaten by the slightest of movement. The off-stump was disturbed, sending a crest-fallen Australian captain on her way back while a pumped-up Jhulan broke into an animated celebration. This was not before Shikha Pandey, her fast-bowling partner, gave India the early breakthrough. The dangerous Beth Mooney played all around an outswinging delivery, which passed through the gapping passage between bat and pad to crash onto the stumps.

With Australia stuttering at 21 for 2 in 7 overs, Raj introduced an early change in bowling through right-arm off-break bowler Deepti Sharma. The move gave India instant gratification as extra bit of loop proved to be the perfect bait for Nicole Bolton. An uppish straight drive was well taken by the bowler, diving full-length to her right.

From 21 for 3 in the 8th over, Ellyse Perry and Ellyse Villani came together to drag Australia back into the game. Like the Kaur-Raj pairing for India, the Australia duo too laid the platform, more than tripling the team total by the end of 15th over. At a time when Raj employed the spin troika of Poonam Yadav, Deepti Sharma and Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Perry and Villani picked two overs to shift the pressure back on India. Villani brought up a fine, counter-attack half-century with three fours off Yadav in the 18th over and followed it up with two more in the 19th off Sharma, to ruffle a few feathers in the India camp.

With a bowler short due to Harmanpreet’s absence in the field, Raj persisted with spin. Villani and Perry narrowed the chase down to 161 off 20 overs, with the former looking set to nullify Harmanpreet’s monumental batting display in the first innings. But on 75 off 57, Villani ended up finding Mandhana at mid on off Gayakwad in the 24th over. Villani’s wicket deflated Australia’s charge, as they went from 126 for 4 to 160 for 8 in 31 overs. Alex Blackwell watched the middle-order crumble from the other end but wasn’t giving up just yet.

She launched a barrage of sixes against the spinners and kept Australia alive, even if only barely, to push the game till the very end. Her onslaught began after India took another step towards the final with the ninth wicket in the 33rd over. Blackwell managed at least a boundary from the following over up until the 39th over, including a 15-run over off Jhulan that gave the Australian camp hope of a miraculous comeback. Blackwell smashed a 36-ball 50 and kept going, leaving Raj to make a tough call towards the end of the innings. With Shikha Pandey having spent a considerable amount of time off the field, she was not eligible to bowl in the death, leaving Raj to operate with spinners.

That opened up an opportunity for Blackwell to send a few more soaring over the stands and pull off an unthinkable victory. Blackwell brought down the target to 44 off 18 balls, when Yadav conceded just seven to keep India slightly ahead. The first ball of the penultimate over brought down the curtains on Australia’s campaign, as Sharma’s flat and straight delivery sneaked past Blackwell’s big heave to hit the stumps and send India to their second world cup final.

Brief Scores: India 281/4 in 42 overs (Harmanpreet Kaur 171*, Mithali Raj 36; Ashleigh Gardener 1-43, Kirsten Beams 1-49) beat Australia 245 in 40.1 overs (Alex Blacwell 96, Ellyse Villani 75; Deepti Sharma 3-59, Jhulan Goswami 2-35, Shikha Pandey 2-17) by 36 runs.

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