India brought aspiration, not so much on the field, for this was already a much-improved team, but off it. In terms of viewership and a market, India was just opening its eyes to women’s cricket.
There were 86,174 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on March 8, 2020, a record number for women’s matches globally, and also for a female sporting event in Australia. India lost, and comfortably so. But even that did not feel like a stumbling block for women’s cricket to carve a space for itself in the cricketing consciousness.
Then Covid-19 happened, borders closed, sporting events were cancelled, and it genuinely felt like the moment had slipped away. For a year and more, there was little or no women’s cricket played, at international or domestic level.
As the cricket world looked to return to normalcy, it was the big-ticket events that took centre stage. The Indian Premier League (IPL) was thought to be one of those events that simply must be held. And to get this done, elaborate and expensive bio-bubbles were created. There was no chance something similar could happen with women’s cricket. There simply wasn’t the revenue to justify it, or the will among administrators to make it happen.
Which is why India’s ongoing tour of Australia is nothing short of a miracle. When it was announced that India would play three One-Day Internationals (ODIs), one Test match and three Twenty20 Internationals – all of which would contribute points to decide the eventual winner – there was some disbelief in the cricket world.
Add to this the fact that Australia is one of the more difficult countries to go to at the moment – Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced this Wednesday that foreign tourists won’t be allowed into the country until ‘at least next year’ – there was a sense of guarded optimism. It seemed clear that the tour would begin. But there was no guarantee it would be completed.
With Australia taking the ODIs 2-1, they went into the Test favourites. India had not played a Test under lights, or with the pink ball. Given the fact that there is no four-day domestic cricket for women, there was complete uncertainty about how they would pull up in the Test match.
To that end, the anticipation leading into the Test was of a quality completely missing in men’s cricket these days. If the men play so much cricket that it is really too much for all but the most die-hard fans, the women play so little that every match counts.
When India lost the toss and were put in, there was a feeling of here we go again, for those who recently watched the horrors of ‘Adelaide 36’ in the men’s game in December 2020. But Smriti Mandhana and Shafali Varma had other ideas. Shafali, typically the cynosure of all eyes given her aggressive batting style and her ability to put away the good ball, was restrained, by her standards. Mandhana was never over-aggressive but she was in control, she was patient, she was elegant, she was precise.
Mandhana’s 127 was Test match batting encapsulated.
India declared at 377 for 8, giving themselves just an outside chance of bowling Australia out twice after rain had claimed much time and overs. At 119 for 4, Australia would have felt the squeeze, Jhulan Goswami, the tireless servant of women’s cricket doing her thing once more. But the home team dug in and the game ended in a draw.
To watch the Test match was to time travel. You got a clear glimpse of the future of women’s cricket, and what was possible. And you saw the beauty of the past, when hype and hoopla was not the heart of cricket.