July 23, 2017
Start time 1030 local (0930 GMT)
The heroes who were toppled in an ICC final a little over a month ago have turned cheerleaders now, as have possibly a billion others. Every Harmanpreet Kaur six or Mithali Raj record has been acknowledged by a Virat Kohli praise, a Yuvraj Singh retweet, a Virender Sehwag comparison, or a Sachin Tendulkar endorsement. It’s proof of the statement that India women have made in this World Cup.
Every move of theirs – be it reading a book, grooving to the DJ beats in the dugout, their vivacious celebration, even Harmanpreet’s fury at her young colleague, has attracted unprecedented attention. The BCCI, which is yet to present central contracts six months after it expired, has announced a cash reward of INR 50 lakh for every member of the squad. Having exceeded expectations, India now have a shot at cricket’s biggest prize for the first time in 12 years, in front of what is expected to be a packed house at Lord’s.
Players have been flooded with interview requests, their families are being hounded for air time, and management agencies are looking to lap them up – everyone is looking to extract gold from a market that has, for a long time, been untapped in India. Now, it’s as if they’re all rushing to buy gold during Diwali. The interest is real, something that Raj didn’t see coming. After a storied career that has spanned close to 18 years, she now has an opportunity to bow out with the ultimate crowning glory in possibly her final World Cup game.
Just the prospect of India being in the final would’ve elicited a snigger, if not outright ridicule, a month ago. Too conservative, they said. They don’t quite have the power game, a few said, while others felt they needed to be better fielders. While none of that is entirely untrue, India have still managed to ride these odds. Harmanpreet’s fierce ball-striking in her unbeaten 171 in the semi-final, and Veda Krishnamurthy’s late onslaught that converted a middling total into a daunting one in their final league fixture against New Zealand, showed their ability to fight back when cornered.
England’s journey to reach this final has been equally notable, given the upheaval they underwent a little over a year ago. Mark Robinson, six months after being named coach, made the huge call to end Charlotte Edwards’ magnificent international career. The captaincy was handed to Heather Knight at a time when the side needed to revive themselves, having struggled to initially adapt to the challenges and expectations of professionalism. Sarah Taylor’s return, after she took time away from the game to deal with anxiety, and her form in front and behind the stumps, has been one of the stories of the tournament.
With England having conjured a seven-match winning streak after being toppled by India in the tournament opener, it will be as much a battle of nerves and temperament as skill. Natalie Sciver’s ‘Natmeg’ has become a rage. Taylor’s swagger, audacious scoops and paddles, Tammy Beaumont’s belligerence, and Knight’s consistency spell ominous signs for India. This is a side that has come free of the heavy baggage from the last two ICC events – they lost in the final of the World T20 in 2014 and the semifinal of the next edition, in 2016.
What could prove decisive, though, is how quickly both sides adapt at a venue that hasn’t hosted a game yet. India won five games in Derby, which Raj equated to ‘home conditions’. The slope at Lord’s could present an altogether different challenge for their swing bowlers. Their spinners may not get the same purchase. England hold the edge in this aspect, especially given the core of their bowling group can bank on familiarity of conditions. But come the big day, these external factors could count for little. It’s the pressure of the occasion and how calm the players are that could dictate the fate of the contest.
England WWWWW (completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Smriti Mandhana started the tournament with scores of 90 and 106 not out. She’s endured six straight failures since. Her picking of lengths and shot selection have left her vulnerable, perhaps a sign of her confidence at the moment. India’s batting dynamics are such that she’s unlikely to be left out, which gives her another opportunity to make amends.
England coach Mark Robinson believes Fran Wilson’s 75-ball 81, albeit in a defeat against India, triggered a surge. She played that game only because Lauren Winfield was injured. Winfield has since returned to the side, but Wilson has held her own through the sheer weight of her performances, none more significant than her 30 in a tense semi-final win over South Africa. Her career numbers so far don’t reflect her significance in the team, but the final is an opportunity to leave an imprint.
England are likely to remain unchanged.
England: 1 Lauren Winfield, 2 Tammy Beaumont, 3 Heather Knight (capt), 4 Sarah Taylor (capt), 5 Natalie Sciver, 6 Fran Wilson, 7 Katherine Brunt, 8 Jenny Gunn, 9 Laura Marsh, 10 Anya Shrubsole, 11 Alex Hartley
Harmanpreet Kaur injured her shoulder while batting in the nets and was icing it. However, Raj quashed doubts over her participation and said it was merely a precaution to manage niggles. Poonam Yadav had an off day against Australia. Batsmen had enough time to line themselves up against her loopy legspin. India could consider bringing back Ekta Bisht, who didn’t enjoy a great outing in her previous game, against Australia in the league phase. But she has the experience Raj can bank on.
India: 1 Punam Raut, 2 Smriti Mandhana, 3 Mithali Raj (capt), 4 Harmanpreet Kaur, 5 Deepti Sharma, 6 Veda Krishnamurthy, 7 Shikha Pandey, 8 Sushma Verma (wk), 9 Jhulan Goswami, 10 Rajeshwari Gayakwad, 11 Poonam Yadav/Ekta Bisht
Pitch and conditions
It’s set to be the most-watched game in women’s cricket history, with 26,500 fans in attendance, and a few million more expected to tune into their TV sets. The strip is expected to be full of runs. Intermittent showers are on the radar. There’s a reserve day, but it’s unlikely to be needed.
Stats and trivia
- Mithali Raj is the first captain (men or women) to lead India to an ODI World Cup final twice – 2005 and 2017.
- Both sides have a 1-1 head-to-head at Lord’s. India beat England by five wickets in the last completed game between the sides in 2012. The ODI in 2014 was abandoned.
- Nineteen-year old Deepti Sharma is the youngest player to score 200 runs and pick up 10 wickets in a Women’s World Cup.
- Three England batsmen have scored 350-plus runs in the tournament – Tammy Beaumont (387), Heather Knight (363), and Sarah Taylor (351). India’s only representative in this club is Raj, who is the second-highest run-scorer in the tournament with 392.
“It seems like it’s going back to 2005, and I am just too happy that the girls have given us an opportunity to be a part of World Cup finals again.”
India captain Mithali Raj
“The plan was to get to Lord’s and get a chance to sing our song there. Everything we have done since the last 18 months has been towards that and now we’re here.”
England captain Heather Knight
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.