The felicitation function of the Indian women's team on Wednesday served the perfect prelude to the more stately event that beckons in New Delhi on Thursday. At the press conference which Mithali Raj addressed soon after landing, there were at least 60 journalists and cameramen, five times more than the number she addressed while departing for England for the World Cup.
The frenzy at the airport on arrival was such that it took Raj and ten others - part of the second batch of players and support staff who arrived from London around 9am - at least an hour to leave the premises and drive to the hotel that was no more than a five-minute drive.
Through that one hour, it appeared as though the media had taken upon themselves to expiate for the sins of an entire nation that had conveniently chosen to be oblivious to the existence of nearly four generations of women cricketers. Raj, having endured non-recognition for the larger part of her career, like her peer Jhulan Goswami, however, didn't fail to acknowledge what the reception meant to the team.
"Obviously, it's quite overwhelming to see such kind of a reception. It's first of its kind for all of us," Raj said. "I did face something similar [in terms of our outcome in the final], not exactly similar, but a little lesser in 2005. But then there was no BCCI. At that time, I was wondering had we been under BCCI, what kind of reaction we would have or what kind of feedback we would have got back home. But today I can actually feel it's such a huge thing. It's just the beginning of good times for women's cricket."
When asked if the INR 50 lakh (approx US $77,800) cash reward announced by the BCCI was enough to do justice to the team's commitment, Raj, with her trademark subtlety, volleyed the question towards her younger team-mates: "If you were to ask me, I've been playing since 1999, when there were no monetary benefits. You must ask this to the players who've just come into the side."
Among those who giggled at Raj's response was Smriti Mandhana, who expressed her astonishment at the adulation the team received, not just upon landing, but also on social media in the aftermath of the final. "We, as women cricketers, saw it for the first time," she said. "If we would have won, it would have been sweeter. But the team has done reasonably well and perhaps, India is acknowledging that - it showed at the airport."
That Deepti Sharma, India's leading wicket-taker at the tournament, had to be assisted thrice to extricate the wheels of her kit bag, within the matter of 15-odd steps, from underneath the cables dangling around the jostling television cameramen, was only one of the many welcome oddities that played out during the team's arrival. "I wasn't even sure if I'd be able to get to the bus with my luggage," laughed Deepti later in the team hotel.
Upon arrival, it didn't take long for the players to notice that the lobby of the hotel had transformed itself into an unofficial mixed zone. As the bustle around the player interviews gathered strength with each passing minute, out came the fans - some guests, some guests of guests, others possibly uninvited guests. What united them in their purpose, though, was the pride in their eyes as they walked up to the newly christened 'Harmonster' and the 'queen of cool' for selfies.
Among the admirers, was Jyoti Parmar, a former Maharashtra player, who could barely resist getting the perfect snap with Veda Krishnamurthy, who unfailingly complied with every request despite looking haggard in her official travel kit. "It's like when people are rushing in a very popular temple," she said. "It was just like that and we were at centre stage."
Allrounder Shikha Pandey, too, echoed a similar sense of disbelief in trying to "make sense" of the atmosphere. "All of us still have the thing lingering on that we could have seen the team over the line. But seeing the reception here, you can't help but think what would have happened if we had indeed won the World Cup," she said. "I was wondering how the men cricketers feel like all the time."
That the day promised to have the most incredulous incidents in store had been established early. Ahead of Raj's arrival, a group of four gathered around the space behind the photographers' cordon facing the exit gate. As they began unfurling a polythene banner, whispers among the photographers, mostly male, took on the form of a guesswork game: are they part of a fan club?
They wondered if it could be one of the newly-formed Madhana or Harmanpreet fan clubs that may have leaped straight out of Twitter and manifested their presence at the airport. Or, as opined by a creaky voice in innocuous jest, they could also be part of some "mahila morcha" (women's rally) which wanted to drive home a bigger message by their presence. But the other-worldly beings dressed in corporate attire outright ruled out the last possibility.
"Being an only-in-spirit kind of sponsor doesn't cut it. We had to be here in person, for Mithali and her girls," explained D Pooja Kumar, a leader of marketing with one of Raj's sponsors, as she frantically helped the company, mount the roll-up standee.
Moments after they had accomplished their job at hand, all hell broke loose when the news of Raj's flight having arrived broke out. Every step Raj took thereafter was conveyed, via WhatsApp, to either one of the MCA officials or the group of the 15 former India and Maharashtra women players tasked with overseeing the felicitation. As information of Raj nearing the exit gate came about, chants of "India, India" and "captain, captain" rang loud. The change in tenor was seamless; the origin of the chorus symbolic.
Just before Raj arrived, her sponsors expressed confidence in their potential plans for including more India players into their contract base. The utterance couldn't have been timelier. "Until now, we didn't have many of them [the players], but there's a reason to sign more of these girls," Kumar said.
The scene that welcomed Raj at little over 9am was similar to how it was when the first batch arrived in the wee hours. Nearly 100 female cricketers - from Mumbai's senior and Under-19 teams - had travelled from Virar and Shivaji Park, the city's two vertically distant ends - to welcome the team. Among the young players was Jemimah Rodrigues, captain of the Mumbai Under-19 team.
"Our off-season camp is on, but we came here because we wanted to thank the team and Mithali Raj," she said. "They have set the standards for us in this World Cup, to look up to them and become like them."
While Rodrigues' decision may have been founded on her cricketing connection, it was difficult to spot any visual clue to ascertain the reason behind Hafim Tamim, a 48-year old trader from Gujarat, lingering around the main exit from 2am along with a dozen other fans.
"I had come to receive my younger brother. He's already here, but I saw the banners [of the women's team put up by the MCA] and we've decided to wait for them to arrive," he said. "I hadn't seen them play before this World Cup. I wanted see the India women's team today. I had little idea girls play cricket."
For Tamim and millions others in the country, 'seeing' is now almost synonymous to 'believing' - in the trade of the women cricketers and their proficiency in the same. It is the same belief Harmanpreet Kaur, nearly 12 hours later, exuded when asked if the reality of the reception could likely take longer to sink in than her unbeaten 171 against Australia.
"That was something. This reaction to our World Cup journey here in India is also something. It feels a little unreal being at the centre of it, but then, isn't this what we've been waiting for so long?"