The build-up to the Women's T20 Challenge was fairly low-key, even in Jaipur, where the matches were played. But among the players, the tournament held significant value, and the final, between Supernovas and Velocity, turned out to be a fitting finale. Annesha Ghosh, who tracked the tournament, offers her thoughts on Saturday's match and beyond.
A leaping punch of excitement
When New Zealand's Lea Tahuhu sported a sling at the post-match presentation, it amused Harmanpreet Kaur, captain of Supernovas and the Player of the Final. "I was like, arre, how did she dislocate her shoulder? Slide toh dono batsmen mein se kisi ne bhi nahi maara tha [Neither of the two batsmen slid into the crease while taking a run]," Harmanpreet exclaimed after her team had clinched the title.
Tahuhu, in fact, had to head to the hospital after the game, even as some of her team-mates shared groupfies on social media, because of a freak accident.
Tahuhu was at the non-striker's end when 19-year-old Radha Yadav drove New Zealand's Amelia Kerr for the winning four. Tahuhu leaped to celebrate the win but the punch in the air that followed was so powerful, it left her clutching her right shoulder.
"You can imagine how much this league means to the foreign players," Harmanpreet said after the match, referring to Tahuhu's excited response. "For the longest time, they've been asking us, 'When would such a tournament get off the ground in India?'"
Cricket as its own best advertisement
Harmanpreet, who plays in the Women's Big Bash League in Australia and the Kia Super League in England, besides captaining an in-transition India T20I side, would know how deep the impact of a contest like Saturday's could be. A well-earned win in a low-scoring, high-quality final-ball thriller, before a 13,000-plus crowd that waited in long, serpentine queues outside the stadium and then packed into six of the eight stands open to the public, is a rarity in women's domestic T20s in India.
Unlike the WBBL final in January, that had meticulous marketing at its heart to attract a sell-out 5,368-strong crowd in Sydney's Drommoyne Oval, the Women's T20 Challenge, a four-match, six-day-long exhibition tournament in Jaipur, had minimal signage outside the stadium premises. Yet, the final brought women's cricket in India its biggest advertisement.
Two comebacks, and a statement
Two quality comebacks lay at the heart of the final. Called in to deliver only her second over in three matches, Tahuhu removed Hayley Matthews with her second ball, and the uncapped, 15-year-old Shafali Verma in the second over - both deliveries as incisive as they were quick.
Mithali Raj's Velocity needed something special to recover from 57 for 5 and it was India's out-of-favour wicketkeeper Sushma Verma who stepped in. Quietly collecting singles, and stealing the odd boundary in between, the wicketkeeper-batsman made an unflashy 32-ball 40. Eighteen-year-old Kerr, the record-holder for the highest women's ODI score, joined Verma at No. 7 and put on a 71-run stand.
The true significance of the stand rang beyond the 122-run target it helped set. Two nights ago, Velocity ensured a spot in the final via a "calculated", conservative run-chase that ended in defeat for the side. Veda Krishnamurthy, one of the set batsmen in that chase, defended the side's decision to play for the net-run-rate, suggesting any other approach would have exposed their "inexperienced" middle order to a "pressure situation". Neither Verma nor Kerr batted on Thursday; in the final, they showed exactly why they should have.
Jemimah the soothsayer, Jahanara the swinger
Meanwhile, Jemimah Rodrigues won over Twitter on Saturday when, in a response to a tweet asking whether the teenaged batsman was "seeing" anyone, she said: "After this match? I'm definitely seeing a bright future for Women's Cricket!"
She was in equally good form on the field too. With opener Priya Punia, Rodrigues, batting at No. 3, steered Supernovas to 53 for 1 in ten overs in their chase of 122. Punia, a newcomer in the India T20I side, outscored Rodrigues, the highest run-getter in the tournament, with an enterprising 31-ball 29. But with both falling off successive balls - thanks to wristspinners Kerr and Devika Vaidya - Harmanpreet had to build a partnership from scratch.
But on came Jahanara Alam. In June last year, with bat in hand, Jahanara had denied India their seventh Asia Cup title, clinching a last-ball win off Harmanpreet's bowling. On Saturday, she came on to deliver a swing-bowling masterclass. Jahanara's game-turning 2 for 21 uprooted the off stumps of England's Natalie Sciver and New Zealand's Sophie Devine, two of the biggest match-winners on any T20I team sheet.
What's pressure to Harmanpreet?
Supernovas' asking rate (9.66) at the time was more than twice their scoring rate, and with half her side dismissed, the onus fell on Harmanpreet. Such is Harmanpreet's big-match temperament, though, that the scenario - 58 runs required off 36 balls - fed the kind of pressure that so often fuels her game. The unbeaten 41 in the final of the 2017 World Cup qualifier that clinched a last-over win against South Africa, the incredible 171 not out in the 2017 World Cup semifinal against Australia, or the 103 in the 2018 World T20 opener against New Zealand - all examples of classic Harmanpreet innings in high-voltage fixtures.
In the tournament opener, against Trailblazers, Harmanpreet's unbeaten 46 had been in vain, with the side falling two runs short of a chase of 141. On Saturday, she propelled a 51-run stand with No. 7 Tahuhu, to which the latter contributed only 2 off eight balls. And then, with seven needed off five balls, Kerr showed why she's regarded so highly in world cricket today.
That last over
Two balls into the last over, Kerr had the Supernovas captain lofting straight to Matthews at deep cover, and the fielder dived forward to take it. This past week, catching under lights had left fielding frailties of all three teams exposed and, by that parameter, Matthews' effort could have ended as one of the more memorable highlights of the night for the spectators. That was until Radha had her say.
A sequence of three twos from Radha brought the equation down to a run required off the final ball. And the teenager, whom Harmanpreet called a "superstar" at the post-match presentation, closed out the game with a four, underscoring the confidence of the current crop of India youngsters.