June 6. I had been invited to the BCCI's facility at the Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai to hold a media training session for the Indian women's cricket team, who are headed to England for the World Cup shortly. As I talked, it was impossible to miss the infectious energy of this group of players. They giggled collectively at a joke, teased a colleague as we conducted mock interviews, and answered questions I asked with an innate, endearing sincerity.
As part of an exercise on how to handle interviews, I played a clip of an interview with PV Sindhu, conducted in Rio, not long after she won her silver medal at the Olympics last year. We traded observations on how they felt Sindhu came off in that interaction. Among the points I emphasised was the need to tell their stories with honesty and clarity, so the world could understand the struggle and sacrifice required to play top-level sport. Seated in the front row, Harmanpreet Kaur raised her hand.
"Sir, aap bol toh rahe ho ki apni story batao," she said. "Hum toh tayyar hain, par koi sunna hi nahin chahata." [Sir, you are asking us to tell our stories. Well, we are ready to do so but no one seems interested to listen].
Today, I think back to that moment with mild amusement. For the last few days, I have watched Harmanpreet's parents in Moga being besieged by every news channel, and her sister, wearing an India shirt, talking about her sibling's jaw-dropping knock against Australia in the semi-final.
"Think back to five to six years ago," I remember telling Harmanpreet in reply to her question. "Who knew anything about Indian badminton? Now, Saina Nehwal and Sindhu are much sought-after stars. Who is to say you won't be soon?"
Well, here we are. Mithali Raj had 7000 followers on Twitter when she left India. She has nearly 155,000 today. After her sparkling exploits at the start of the tournament, Smriti Mandhana has fan clubs dedicated to her on social media. Jhulan Goswami's magic delivery to dismiss Australia captain Meg Lanning in the semi-final will be replayed thousands of times in years to come in highlights reels. The clip of Veda Krishnamurthy practising her dance moves with Raj while waiting to come in to bat went viral within hours. The effervescence of pocket-sized dynamos Punam Raut and Poonam Yadav has spawned a stream of admiration. And many wonder at how assured Deepti Sharma, just 19, looks.
The most significant takeaway from this World Cup is that this is no longer a sport that seeks your indulgence. Women's cricket does not want you to support it because it sounds like the right thing to do. When watching this Indian team in action, you are not required to endure them. You're watching them for their ability and skill. They produce a brand of cricket that excites and engages followers. They offer a compelling reason to turn up at stadiums or switch on TV sets to watch them play.
Observe the astonishing arc of Harmanpreet's bat-swing as she pummels a six into the back rows of the stadium. Watch carefully the delicious, silken touch of a Mandhana cover drive. See how Sushma Verma whips the bails off at the scent of an opportunity. Gawk as Goswami lands them repeatedly on a length with precision. Notice how Rajeshwari Gayakwad flummoxes batsmen who try and upset her length by charging at her left-arm spinners. And then there's Raj - the most poised of leaders - constructing innings of such considered authority that it sets a template for a generation of players to follow.
Along with these captivating skill sets, there is a personality to this team. I sensed an impish streak among several of the players in the course of my two-hour session. They hunted an opportunity to trip up a colleague with a prank if they could. At one point, we discussed how the inability to converse in English should never be a hindrance in approaching an interview with confidence. Up stepped Yadav, the canny legspinner who prised out two wickets in the final, for a mock interview. To translate, we asked Raj to stand alongside so we could practise how to handle such situations in the real world.
"So Poonam," I began, attempting to mimic an Australian accent, "What was the key to your spell today?"
"Well," she began earnestly. "I just bowled stump to stump and used my variations and flight."
For a moment there was silence before the room broke into a cacophony of laughter. The usually stoic Raj chuckled, "Hey, if you had to answer in English, why am I standing here?"
"Sorry didi," Poonam apologised, laughing uncontrollably by now. "Chalo phir se kartein hain." [Come on, let's do this again.]
These have been a transformative few weeks, raising the profile of a sport that has so far lurked in the shadows, its existence barely acknowledged and rarely, if ever, celebrated. An IPL-style T20 league, already lawyered for by Raj, must become an urgent project within the BCCI. The success of the Women's Big Bash in Australia and the Kia Super League in England has shown the commercial viability of such ventures. If players from around the world are in India for a few weeks, the quality of competition is certain to lift standards. Look at how stints in the Big Bash have aided Harmanpreet and Mandhana in their games.
Administratively, other key areas need immediate attention. Central contracts, currently a pittance, need to be radically improved so cricket becomes a viable option for eager players around the country. It is downright ridiculous that only 11 players have contracts at the moment. Every team has a 12th man, but the BCCI didn't consider that while drafting these deals. Of these, seven players make less than Rs 1 lakh (USD 1550 approximately) a month, a pittance when pitched against models followed in England and Australia.
The domestic structure also needs a total reset to ensure a pathway is created for young girls as they seek to stride forward as professional cricketers. A regular calendar for the national team needs to be drawn up so they are seen often by home crowds, playing at iconic stadiums, much in the same way as their male counterparts. And the oxygen of all modern sport - regular and high-quality TV coverage when the national team is in action, offering sponsors a consistent platform to associate with, and creating a sustained audience for the sport: one that doesn't only come on board when a high-profile world event is staged to realise, wait a minute, these women can really play.
For the last decade or so, women athletes have captured the imagination of India's rapidly expanding sports-watching public. The likes of Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar have become household names, and the same opportunity now presents itself to the country's cricketers. To fail to seize the moment and build on its momentum will be criminal.