Watching the Women’s T20 World Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last Sunday is among the best experiences I have had in writing on the sport in the past four decades and more.
While the event had been widely tom-tommed for several weeks, there was still a sliver of doubt whether it would get the spectator support that was being sought. But on Sunday, when more than 86,000 fans turned up, such doubts were easily vanquished.
True, the record attendance for a women’s international event was not bettered, falling short by around 5000 spectators. This was largely because of the COVID-19 scare, as a Cricket Australia official told me.
All tickets had been sold out or delivered to sponsors as per their quota. Some just didn’t turn up. But the success of the final, indeed the event, was in how many did come despite the coronavirus fear that has been stalking the globe.
The ICC, Cricket Australia and all other cricket boards deserve credit for leveraging the event to this scale, with purpose and imagination. Having the final on International Women’s Day, for instance, was a winning idea.
It also helped that the finalists were home team Australia and India, which undoubtedly has the largest cricket following in the world. But while this was a dream come true for the organisers certainly, on the field of play it didn’t quite unravel quite like that for India.
The defeat was disappointing only because the match was so one-sided. Given India’s form in the league phase a far better contest was expected. As it transpired, Australia won the match by a whopping 85 runs.
However, this does not take away any credit from Harmanpreet Kaur and Co who performed splendidly on all days barring one. Getting into the final of a major international is never a cakewalk. It took some sizzling individual and collective performances to earn the right to play Australia in the decider.
With a victory over defending champions Australia in the first match itself, the start was propitious. As the World Cup progressed, India became a more assertive and attractive side, playing with vigour, flair and ambition.
The top order looked in sparkling form with opener Shafali Verma being truly explosive, a la Viru Sehwag. The bowling was penetrative, the pick of the attack being wily spinner Poonam Yadav, and Shikha Pandey just a whit behind, especially bowling in the death overs.
Batting mainstays Smriti Mandhana and captain Harmanpreet Kaur did not quite make the big scores consistently as expected. But from the team’s point of view, what was important was that in a tight situation, one or a couple of players would rise to the occasion to clinch the issue.
The semi-final against England was washed out because of rain, but nobody would have grudged the Indian team a place at the MCG last Sunday evening. So what went wrong in the final?
Losing the toss was a factor no doubt. Australia had the opportunity to bat with the pitch at its best, and made the most of it in scoring a mammoth 184, not relaxing the run rate from the first over itself.
But I think a great deal of India’s troubles were self-inflicted. Two catches went down in the first powerplay itself. To give a player of the calibre of Alyssa Healy a ‘life’ early in her innings is inviting serious trouble.
The Australians were also smarting from the defeat to India in the opening match of the tournament, and were intent on exacting revenge. They did this in every facet of the game – batting, bowling and particularly fielding.
I don’t think that India's defeat was because of any great disparity in talent between the two teams, rather in the ability to handle pressure. Home support for Australians, for instance, had a huge role to play in their success.
Playing in front of a large crowd, 86000+plus, was always going to be a severe test of nerves. The Aussies, soaking in the atmosphere better, upped their performance by 20-25 per cent, while the Indians slumped under the pressure.
This can be attributed to lack of experience in handling crises. All the Aussie players, remember, participate in the Big Bash, which has afforded them invaluable opportunities to understand and cope with tight situations.
Mandhana and Harmanpreet, too, have been part of the Big Bash in the past couple of years, but the majority in the Indian team are not used to such daunting situations. Also, consider that some like Shafali Verma and Jemimah Rodrigues are still in their teens.
However, further rationalisations will get into lame excuse making, which is precisely what the Indian team, support staff, selectors and the administration need to guard against. That would take the focus away from what went wrong.
The best – in fact the only – way to become a champion side is to square up to mistakes and mishaps head on and build from there.
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.