Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo
ZIM v WI (1)
Ranji Trophy (2)
ENG-L in SL (1)
WT20WC Warm-up (5)
BPL 2023 (2)
India's presence at Lord's in the Sunday final of the 2017 Women's World Cup will make it the most watched game in the history of women's cricket. Harmanpreet Kaur and Thursday's semi-final result have decided that even before a ball is bowled. There are other, colder, truths hovering around England v India but in India, the post-Thursday rush will not subside easily.
On the ground, it is not yet clear whether Harmanpreet is fully fit to play on Sunday. And an Indian victory, despite the euphoria of beating defending champions Australia, is far from a given. Yes, they upset England in their tournament opener. But England are far stronger because they get more game time than the Indian girls, and have had their own stirring, euphoric run to a sixth final. They are on familiar turf, plus the commitment and energies the ECB has directed towards the women's game over the last decade - since the men's and women's game came under one board - has been far greater than the BCCI's. Fact.
Harmanpreet's innings could, however, be a game-changer for women. It was not only the most important innings by an Indian woman, it could end up being the most important innings for her tribe everywhere. The innings rose above its context and specifics and has become a disruptor and a creator. On the day, along with Australian plans, it stood established notions on their head. It has already created enormous possibility and an energised future for the women's game in India and the rest of the world.
We have seen it happen before, and already there are many comparisons of the Women's World Cup 2017 semi-final victory to India's winning the World Cup in 1983. Many see a reflection of Kapil Dev's 175 not out at Tunbridge Wells. That innings is in folkore and embedded into what followed after, but no one other than the people at the ground witnessed it. There is no recording available of the innings, as the BBC was on strike. Had we not been watching Harmanpreet on TV, her shots would not have rung around the cricketing world. She did the right things at the right place at the right time - but in her case, she had to be seen to be believed.
Today Harmanpreet is everywhere. Never mind the tweets from famous men and "the boys", she is in the minds of everyone. On Thursday night, a young friend messaged to say she was watching the match while sitting in the bathroom wearing a single sock and the same T-shirt she wore "when India won the World Cup at home". To Indian eyes, the innings and the match turned the conditional nomenclature of "women's cricket" into what it is - cricket. (Like it is with Indians and badminton these days.)
What it also did was take the bogus television theory of "attracting women" through eye-candy type visuals, cheerleaders and other flim-flam and hit it out of the park. Sport is gender-neutrally watchable at its most compelling. In Derby when she got going, Harmanpreet compelled everyone to watch. What stayed in the mind were the fundamentals; not male not female, merely athletic and human: the blessed gift of timing, its conversion into instinct and muscle memory, the breadth of mind and resoluteness of heart to turn it all into audacity and fearlessness. To step out of the crease to anything, anyone, any pace, and to own the game, to become its momentum and from there, the outcome. All this from five feet three inches of a woman under a helmet.
That last sentence immediately appears extraneous because every sporting story begins with the fundamentals and ends in the result. For the rest, we fill in the details. Harmanpreet scripted it, India won it, the world may never be the same again.
Harmanpreet's striking ability is of no surprise to anyone who has followed the women's game from even the corner of their eye. There is a younger, harder-hitting, generation of 21st-century Indian cricketers being created in the playing fields, with an eye on shorter formats, and in the women's team, Harmanpreet is its leader.
She was signed up in Australia's Women's Big Bash League and finished as the No. 2 run scorer for her team, Sydney Thunder. The Indian women's fielding is not up to scratch with the world's best, but did you see how substitute Mansi Joshi pulled back a boundary and saved a single? And back to the batting, how Veda Krishnamurthy pumped up the volume in the must-win game against New Zealand?
What India and women's cricket need after Sunday is a well-calibrated calendar of bilaterals or tournaments, and solid domestic leagues like those offered in England or Australia. Anything less will be small-minded, petty. The genie is out of the bottle, the elephant in the room is angry, and the girls are banging down Indian cricket's door. The BCCI's revenues have been used to muscle ahead in the world game, in the boardroom and on the field. This World Cup is now Indian cricket's chance to absorb the women's game into its ecosystem in the true sense of the word, and to drive it forward in the world, but with camaraderie, and mutual respect.
On Friday evening, I ran into Smitha Harikrishna, former allrounder, double World Cupper for India, MBA and former Hewlett Packard employee. Harikrishna is now based in Dubai, an active mother with an ICC Level II coaching course, who works with cricket "cubs", young boys and girls both. She was in India on a vacation, her eyes shining when talking about the innings. "We'd never scored so many, hit that hard, hit that long." Harikrishna retired at 26. Harmanpreet is 28. "I can now tell girls... yes, go play cricket. There's a future in it."
Earlier that day in office, I pestered the ESPNcricinfo desk to use "Harmanator" in a headline somewhere. It has been turned down so far, with an eyeroll from my younger colleagues. The site had just launched its redesign on Thursday afternoon, and there was no time for being predictable, being so yesterday. Harmanpreet Kaur and the Derby semi-final, and the 2017 Women's World Cup, will always stand for tomorrow.