Harmanpreet Kaur: Captain to leader to brink of greatness

One step away from winning a World Cup, her journey of self-discovery was four years in the making

Rare are the moments when the peak of a captain's graph coincides with a defining moment in their voyage of self-discovery. Rarer the times when both underpin a historic leap for the team they lead. To understand why the T20 World Cup final, India's first in the format, is a rite of passage for their captain Harmanpreet Kaur, it helps to know how she grew into the role to get to this stage. And how close she was to going away from it all.
Less than a year ago, in an interview with ESPNcricinfo, Kaur had conceded she had been "considering only playing in the overseas leagues and then making my way back into the Indian team." The admission came the morning after she had become the winning captain at the Women's T20 Challenge for a second straight year.
The roots of that personal low lay in a career high for her: the semi-final of the 2018 T20 World Cup, India's first knockouts appearance in T20s in eight years, also her first world tournament as captain. That campaign, though, came to be remembered more for a protracted controversy than the quality cricket that underscored their undefeated league-stage performances.
Fifteen months on from that loss, India now find themselves just a step away from their maiden world title. A second straight win against defending champions Australia, whom they had beaten in the tournament opener, could hand them the T20 World Cup at the MCG on Sunday. For Kaur, progress to the final itself is a big stride from where she found herself in May last year.
"At the time, I was not enjoying [my game]," Kaur said after the washout against England on Thursday. "But thankfully, my support staff, my family members kept me going. I made sure I spend more time with my family. And, unfortunately, I was also injured at the time. I really trust in god. Whatever happens, happens for good. And that (ankle) injury (in February last year) proved a blessing [in disguise]; I got a break."
The injury, sustained soon after a 3-0 T20I series whitewash at the hands of hosts New Zealand, ruled Kaur out of the ODI and T20I series in February-March last year, their first assignment at home under head coach WV Raman. Kaur's absence for the first time since her debut a decade ago saw vice-captain Smriti Mandhana step into her shoes for the T20Is.
"During that [recovery] period, I would just think of my childhood, my early days in the game when I just started to play the game just for the love of it, when I used to play it because that's what I loved most; I didn't have my focus on any other xyz things," she recalled. "My team members and our support staff stood by my side so today, when I find myself here, it's because of them and their prayers."
Kaur's first taste of leadership duties, too, had come in a stand-in capacity. An injury to then captain Mithali Raj in the 2012 Asia Cup final in Guangzhou saw Kaur, the youngest India Women captain at the time at only 23 years and 237 days, lead the side to the title.
Five years later, a similar scenario emerged in the 2017 ODI World Cup Qualifier final in Colombo, where, standing in in the absence of Raj, Kaur would clinch the title with a final-over six against South Africa. Memories of that tournament and the historic T20I series win in Australia under Raj in 2016 featured in a refreshingly-candid press conference on Thursday.
"Before the 2017 World Cup, the qualifiers played a huge role in our journey so far," Kaur said. "The confidence we got from that campaign, we are carrying that even now. When we were winning back-to-back games, every player in the team started realising what their potential is, what they individually and we, as a team, can achieve.
"That lifted the confidence of every player who's been part of the Indian sides since the 2016 [T20 series] win at some point or the other. Also, the hard work we did four-five years prior - that, too, is paying off now."
In both those tournaments, Kaur played a starring role. Her 70 runs in two T20I innings - the most by an Indian in the series - at an average of 35 facilitated their 2-1 win on the 2016 tour, earning her contract in the Women's Big Bash League in Australia. A year later, her run-a ball unbeaten 46 in the final of the World Cup Qualifier became the cornerstone of India's one-run win.
At the ongoing World Cup, though, Kaur doesn't feature in the top 50 run-scorers' list. Scores of 15, 1, 8 and 2 have left her searching for the joy of batting in a floundering line-up that's been buoyed largely by opener Shafali Verma's exploits. That India have made the final without a half-century from their batters is a glowing testament to the efficacy of their bowlers. To some degree, it also speaks for how well Kaur has marshalled her spin-heavy resources, playing as many as four frontline spinners in two out of four league games, going in with just the one of her three quick-bowling options.
"As a batter, when you're not in good form, it's easy for your mental stability to shake a bit," Kaur said. "Over the years, the maturity that has come in me as a person [to deal with a situation like this]. I started understanding things better, quicker.
The most important thing as a captain is to make each member of the side realise that they are an integral part of that side. In that regard, it was a challenge for her but she has coped with it brilliantly
Coach WV Raman on Harmanpreet Kaur
"I have tried to make sure that how the team does well together remains at the top of my focus because if I'm having a bad day, it doesn't mean I have to find a corner for myself and just keep thinking about why things are not working out for me. Whatever I tell my players, they trust me and have been doing things accordingly because when a team walks together in the same direction, the goal is much clearer. It's all about trusting each other; that trust has brought us where we are today."
Kaur inherited a T20I team in transition, one that had been wanting in skills and experience that the traditionally stronger, well-rounded ODI side boasts. A steady influx of young players since the start of 2018, though, injected freshness in the dressing room, fearlessness in approach, and agility on the field. The last of those was a concern Kaur had highlighted categorically during the heavy defeats India suffered against England and Australia in the tri-series at home in March 2018, asking the team management to provide her with "fit players who can run all across the ground" for their next tournament.
On the eve of the semi-finals in Sydney, Raman, the fourth head coach Kaur has worked with since taking over from Raj in October 2016, picked Kaur's management of the young players - nine members in India's 15-member World Cup squad are 22 or younger - as the standout feature in her growth.
"The longer you are captain, the better you become," Raman said at the SCG, seated next to Kaur. "That's the same for any captain. It's also a credit to her that she has rallied the youngsters in the side well; she's made them feel comfortable. The most important thing as a captain is to make each member of the side realise that they are an integral part of that side. In that regard, it was a challenge for her but she has coped with it brilliantly."
Kaur believes a look within herself has brought results without; for a player with "aggression is my genes," acceptance of the need to channel that streak the right way has been vital to her transformation from captain to leader.
"Two or three years ago, I used to be a lot more aggressive on the field," she said. "I used to lose my temper very quickly, but things have been changing within me, and I have seen that pay off. I have seen that change translate into results for me and the team."
Kaur's team-mates testify the growth and change their captain has seen in herself.
"It's been an incredible journey for her… as a player and as a leader," Veda Krishnamurthy, who also shared the dressing room with Kaur for Railways and played against her in the WBBL, said after the semi-final. "If you ask anybody in the team, they'll say she's a true leader and she wants to make sure she's doing her job, and inspiring us to do our jobs as well.
"She's evolved really well as a captain. She is someone who's very aggressive on the field, so it's difficult to cut down on your natural instincts. It's [now] easier to have conversations with players off the field, plan properly, make sure they understand what is expected of us. That's worked for us as a team."
Wristspinner Poonam Yadav, a consistent match-winning force through the best part of Kaur's successes in the role, offers specificity to Veda's appraisal.
"Harry di (sister) has been of immense support," Yadav said on Thursday, looking back on her personal graph through the T20 World Cup, starting with a match-winning four-for against Australia in the opener. "When I got hit for a six [by Alyssa Healy] in the first over, she came to me and said, 'Poonam, you're one of the most experienced players in the team, and we expect better of you.'
"So that kind of stirred something within me. I told myself if my captain has that much faith in me, I should be able to make a comeback. I took a wicket (Healy's) the very next ball, and have not looked back since. Now when I think about that moment, it means so much in terms of my individual performance and our team's run to the final."
Safe to say, then, to play the No.1-ranked side in front of a potentially record crowd at the MCG in pursuit of a trophy that has eluded generations of Indian women cricketers has been four years in the making for Kaur the captain, and as long for the team that has helped her find a "leader" in that role.
"Whether ahead of this tournament or through it, we, as a team, have tried to make sure we do a few things right," Kaur said. "For example, spending time together, keep each other company, motivating each other. All our support staff have been all immensely helpful and positive.
"When we were getting a day or two as offs, we made sure we spent time together, help each other and kept reminding ourselves of what we're capable of because when you break away from the team when the cricket is not on, your focus tends to move into all sorts of directions. When you are not able to fulfill your role a 100%, so someone steps in for you and takes a bit of pressure off you. This camaraderie has helped us a lot."
On an individual level, too, the immensity of Sunday's match for Kaur cannot be overstated. Her mother, who will be watching the final along with her father and brother, has never watched Kaur live at a stadium. Hailing from Moga, a town in the north Indian state of Punjab, she grew up assuming "your batting gets into a flow once you step on Australian soil." Reflecting on how her career has played out, Kaur said, "maybe it's because I used to admire Australian cricket and Australia grounds so much, things have been somewhat special for me here."
It was in this country, a 19-year-old Kaur made her international debut in the ODI World Cup, in Bowral, on this day, 11 years ago. At the time she had many seniors to show the way. In India's first world tournament without them, when Kaur leads India out on Sunday, Raj will be following the action at the stadium. In ways a small-town girl could have never imagined, the career of Kaur, the most experienced member of this T20I team, will be coming a full circle on her 31st birthday.

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo