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Match Analysis

The anatomy of India's heartbreak

History will remember that they fell short by five runs in the semi-final but it was much, much more than that

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
India arrived in South Africa with what seemed like a date with destiny. On the eve of the long-awaited WPL, with more money and interest in the women's game in their country than ever before, they were expected to break Australia's hegemony on the title and announce themselves as a new global powerhouse.
History will remember that they fell short by five runs, but it was much, much more than that. From the start of the tournament, they were under unexpected pressure but every time they were knocked down, they found a way to come back. Until today.
Their captain Harmanpreet Kaur's best effort in the tournament was not enough to take India to a second successive T20 World Cup final as she journeyed on a winding path to an ultimately heartbreaking defeat.
Mid-January, 2023
India land in South Africa to play a tri-series against the World Cup hosts and West Indies in preparation for the global tournament. Harmanpreet misses the first match with an injury, then struggles with a shoulder problem and picks up an illness too.
Her team-mate Jemimah Rodrigues expressed her concern: "Harry di, from the time she has come here, she has been falling sick. She has injuries. I have hardly seen her bat in the nets because something or the other was happening to her. Imagine the kind of thing she was going through, mentally."
Despite that, Harmanpreet played every match in the group stage of the World Cup. She didn't score a lot of runs. She only crossed 20 once in four visits to the crease, but there was a sense she was saving her best for when it mattered most: the knockouts.
Sometime on Monday
Harmanpreet develops a fever.
"I had to visit the hospital [on Wednesday]," she would reveal later. "We had some paracetamol there because at that time, my body temperature was going up and down. But I think it happens sometimes when the weather changes; in South Africa, sometimes it is very hot and sometimes it is very cold."
Thursday morning
No one in the Indian team knows if their captain is well enough to lead them.
"Honestly, until the team meeting, we didn't even know whether she would play because she just kept it to herself," Rodrigues said. "I had just stepped out of my room and I saw her carrying her own kit bag and I was like, 'Yes, this is it.'
An hour before play, Harmanpreet called her team into a huddle.
"She said to us, 'I am very proud of this team and I am very proud to lead this team'," Rodrigues said.
Around three hours later
Rodrigues and Harmanpreet put on a 69-run stand for the fourth wicket and scored at a rate of more than ten runs an over. India were ahead of Australia in the chase but then Rodrigues was caught behind attempting to ramp Darcie Brown, and Harmanpreet's bat got stuck in the ground as she tried to slide it into the crease while trying to complete a second run. After their captain's run-out, India's chase started falling apart.
"A little bit here or there and the ball would have been over the keeper's head. The shot was still on and the intent was there," Rodrigues said of her dismissal. "And Harman was very unfortunate. It was not in our control."
As Harmanpreet walked off, she flung her bat on to the turf.
Later, in the mixed zone, Rodrigues is asked what she wants to do as soon as she gets back to her hotel. "I just want to cry," she says
"It was a disappointment because the way I was batting, maybe that was the only way I could have got out. Otherwise, the way I was hitting the ball, I knew how to take this chase till the end," Harmanpreet said. "From the Australian team's body language, it looked like they had given up. But the moment I got out, the momentum shifted from India to Australia, I personally felt it was a turning point."
But India needed only 40 runs off 32 balls after Harmanpreet's dismissal and there was a sense they could have got there.
"To come out there and the way Harry di played, it speaks so much about her mental strength and determination," Rodrigues said. "She's very passionate about the sport, very passionate about this team and very passionate about winning."
India spent the rest of the innings on the edge of their seats as they watched Deepti Sharma take them as close as she could but the evening ended in tears. At the post-match presentation, Harmanpreet wore sunglasses to hide hers. Later, in the mixed zone, Rodrigues was asked what she wanted to do as soon as she got back to her hotel. "I just want to cry," she said.
She was asked more questions, some about the WPL, others about whether this defeat brought back bad memories that she had hoped to shelve away. Eventually, a wearing Rodrigues told reporters it was "too soon for me to process everything" and she was "not in the headspace right now", but that "every loss hurts". For her, and every member of the squad.
"In the change room now, everyone's disappointed. Nobody's even talking to each other. But at the same time, this is like a learning experience."
In the moments after one of their most painful setbacks, the last thing India wanted was to talk about it publicly, but such is the life of a professional sportsperson. Their every moment must be analysed and dissected - India's fielding is one of the areas that will come under the microscope most starkly - and everything explained even if the players can't quite come up with the explanations themselves.
"I don't know what to say," Rodrigues said. "It's important after such losses to give people space. That is most important. We feel for each other. Today also it was like we will go and give our life out there - that's the kind of bond we have. But it's also good to respect each other. I'm sure everyone's going to vent when they go back to their room but for now, they are just trying to be strong for each other."
By the time you read this, India might have come to terms with their defeat. Harmanpreet may have done what she said she would in the press conference: "accept whatever happened". She may even have moved past the point of puzzlement she found herself in after the game. "I don't understand how this is going on," she said. "I think we played good cricket. That's all I can say."
But there is a silver lining. "This team shows a lot of promise," Rodrigues said. "If you go see it, our average age is around 22 to 24. Imagine two years down the line, and this will be the team that will be dominating the world."
India leave this World Cup wounded but with a young squad and a shiny, new franchise league at their doorstep, they have the ingredients to go all the way next time, and many times after that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket