India's Wormsley fairy tale
"Only the Indian team has not gone professional," said a middle-aged Indian man to Cavantina Patel, the Indian women's team manager, on Saturday. Patel smiled back and replied, "Don't we look professional?" as India captain, Mithali Raj and Shikha Pandey took their side towards a historic Test victory against Charlotte Edwards' formidable England at the scenic Wormsley ground.
As soon as Pandey punched a cover drive, the winning stroke, her team-mates charged in from the boundary to lift the batting pair, before the ball had been picked up by the fielder in the deep. The Indians jumped ecstatically, shrieked, kissed the pitch, plucked out the stumps, danced in a circle screaming "hip hip hurray", and struck Usain Bolt poses.
It was a momentous occasion for the all-woman contingent (there is no man among their coaching and support staff). Of the 14 players in the squad, only three had played Tests before. Yet across the three days and one session of play, Raj and her players adapted to the conditions easily, played to their strengths, and showed discipline, control and patience. It was a groundbreaking win.
When Smriti Mandhana was growing up, she would say to her mother that she wanted her name in the newspapers, like her brother Shravan, who played age-group cricket for Maharashtra.
"The only two things that could help me get my name in the papers was either playing cricket or being in Bollywood," Mandhana, who is 18, said. "If you scored 96% marks in grade 10, your name will only be in the paper once and then it's over. So that is the reason I started playing cricket."
The Wormsley Test was Mandhana's debut, as it was for seven others in the side. It was also the first Test India were playing in eight years. Mandhana scored an important fifty in the second innings, which helped set a solid platform in India's chase of 181.
For seamer Niranjana Nagarajan, whose four-wicket haul helped scuttle England for 92 after Raj elected to field, the win was the best moment of her life. "It will take at least two or three days for it to sink in," she said.
Nagarajan missed the women's World Cup last year with malaria. In January this year, while she was recovering, Raj called Nagarajan to tell her India would be playing a Test in England in the summer.
According to Patel, Nagarajan is quite the character. On Saturday when India's chase resumed, she instructed every player, irrespective of where they were sitting, not to change position. And even before Raj and Pandey completed the two runs needed for victory, it was Nagarajan who led the team's charge into the middle. She plucked out two stumps and pumped them in the air, then bowed down and kissed the pitch.
"I am very passionate about cricket. This victory means a lot to me as this was my first Test," Nagarajan said. "We all believed that we could win the Test match. We all believed that we could take 20 wickets in a Test. And that is what happened."
Beating England in England and achieving the victory after surviving the vacuum of no Test cricket for eight years makes this Indian victory extra special.
"In terms of experience this is huge because playing against the Ashes winners, a team that evolved as a team to reckon with in the last eight years, and winning a Test on their home soil is a big achievement," Raj said. "We were banking on just three senior players to take on a mighty England team.
Raj, among the three players who had played Tests before (Jhulan Goswami and Karu Jain being the other two), said being around younger women bubbling with enthusiasm was an experience to savour. "I definitely feel like a debutant because I have so many young girls around," Raj said. "The energy is so high. They are always giggling. So it kind of gets you back to kiddish behaviour."
Goswami, now 31, has played nine Test matches, same as Raj, and featured in three victories. The first one was in 2002 in South Africa. After the second, in England in 2006, she was named the Player of the Series. Saturday's victory was special for her because the inexperienced Indian squad had adapted well not only to the conditions but to an unfamiliar format.
"It is always great to win a Test match abroad, especially in such conditions, where the ball was moving from day one," Goswami, who works as an assistant manager with Air India in Kolkata, said. "It was challenging for both batsmen and bowlers, who have to keep the ball in the right areas. We beat England, who are the top team in women's cricket. And to beat them twice on their home soil, even after eight years, gives us a lot of confidence and it is a great moment."
For Raj the challenge of leading a young team that had been brought up on a diet of limited-overs cricket was substantial. The BCCI scrapped the two-day format in 2008 for a couple of years. "It is difficult because a Test match is all about planning, tactics session by session, when to experiment, when to curb those runs, when to go for wickets," Raj said. "It demands a lot, it tests your endurance, the mental aspects, tests your skills."
The Test format in women's cricket has hung on the precipice of extinction in recent years. Even England Women, who have a dedicated professional wing within the ECB supporting them, have only played eight Tests since August 2006. Raj believes that without Tests, the women's game will fade. "Maybe the boards feel that to promote women's cricket they would want to stress on T20 to get people to come and watch. But if you really want to test a cricketer it is Test matches."
Unlike the top men's teams, who get to play four- and five-Test match series, the women's teams are restricted to just one Test a series. "Maybe we should have two or three-Test series frequently," Raj said. "That is when the standard and quality of women's cricket will definitely improve, because the bowlers can focus on every session and the batsmen will improve temperamentally. If you are very good at Test cricket you can easily adapt to the limited-overs formats."
She hoped the victory would boost India's chances of playing more Tests. "The ICC's points system also helps because we will try and play more matches against other teams. Earlier it was just two series every year and with that it was very difficult for both the player and the team to maintain the momentum," she said.
Goswami said the victory was important because India had fallen by the wayside after inconsistent performances in world tournaments in the last two years. "It will give a lot of confidence to the well-wishers of women's cricket. They had been frustrated and upset with us but now they can celebrate."
Nagarajan, who works as a senior ticket examiner with Indian Railways in Chennai, said this victory could potentially have meaning in terms of striking a blow against the conservative attitude of Indian society in general towards women's cricket. "Not many, including women, allow their daughters to play the game. They all want their daughters to have a good, respectable family life."
Raj and Goswami, called Mithalidi (older sister) and Jhulandi by their team-mates, are the side's guiding lights. Standing in slips, Mandhana learned how Goswami used her experience to dismiss set batsmen, like Sarah Taylor. She looked on when Raj finished the job as the pressure built during India's chase, much as she had during her first match against Raj, in a domestic game between Railways and Maharashtra. Then, Mandhana said, she "just stood there at point" and stared in awe at how her idol manoeuvred the bowling with ease.
The victory has been a dream come true for the players' families too. Nagarajan turned emotional, remembering her grandmother, Meenakshi Balasubramaniam. "I really miss her now. Her prayers made this day come true. She has always been there for me."
Has it sunk in yet for Mandhana? "I never dreamed of anything like this. I dreamed of getting a hundred on debut. But the win is important - it is more than everything else," she said, holding a stump, on which she wants the Indian squad's autographs, starting with Raj.
On Saturday afternoon, shortly before the winning runs were scored, Nagarajan and the other debutants spoke of how they would celebrate the victory: whether they should first shake hands with the batsmen or hoist them onto their shoulders, or just run into the middle and dance in a team huddle, or just pluck the stumps out. Everyone was lined up like they were gathered for a sprint: eager, nervous, excited. It was a situation not common to most of these women. Yet, in victory, Raj and her troops did not look out of place. Each of them has managed to break new ground, not just for the side but for the women's game in India.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo