Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Few events in her sport have been as pivotal as her landmark 171 against Australia. There’s more to Harmanpreet Kaur’s story, though
“Earlier, some of my father’s friends used to come to see me off at the airport [before overseas tours] and say, ‘Why do you need to attempt big hits when you know girls do not have power to clear the rope? Take only singles and doubles, na?'” Harmanpreet says with a laugh during the first of my three conversations with her. “I used to keep quiet. After watching last year’s World Cup, they started believing maybe my team-mates and I can clear the rope.”
Harmanpreet is a batting allrounder who modelled her aggressive style of play on that of her idol Virender Sehwag. But it was watching the India men’s Test vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane’s restraint at a nets session in 2016 that taught her the value of patience. And though her popularity in the cricketing landscape is nowhere close to Rahane’s, the fact that posters of both players (who are ambassadors for a leading sportswear brand) came up at the National Cricket Academy’s refurbished gym earlier this year is not bereft of symbolism. It represents the post-2017 World Cup era for women’s cricket in India, one with Harmanpreet at its centre.
“‘Cricketer’ – that’s what I used to say as a kid whenever someone would ask me what I wanted to become,” Harmanpreet says. “I had no clue how I could become a cricketer, which team to play for. All I knew was that I wanted to be a cricketer.”
Her younger brother, Gary (Gurjinder) Bhullar and his friends would make fun of her. “‘Humarein paas toh scope hain,’ he would say. ‘Tu kya Sehwag ke saath open karegi?'” [We have scope (because India has a men’s cricket team). What will you do – open with Sehwag?]
The poster of Harmanpreet at the NCA is quite different from a picture of her that takes pride of place in the room in her home in Punjab’s Moga district that houses her trophies. Part of a collage made by childhood friend Hartaj Singh Sodhi, it features 17-year-old Harmanpreet posing with the trophy from her first school nationals in 2006-07, with Parveen Khan, one of her best friends and later a Punjab team-mate, by her side.
“The branded sports shoes she’s showing off in the photo, those were mine,” says Yadwinder Singh Sodhi, Hartaj’s older brother and Harmanpreet’s first coach. “Harman didn’t know what brand it was. She was just happy to wear it.”
At the heart of Harmanpreet’s rise lay Yadwinder’s tutelage. “He used to make me practise with the most bekaar [worthless] bats,” she says. “Even the balls he would get used to be without seam.
“He would set me a target for my batting sessions: send at least half the total number of balls beyond a tree at the edge of the ground. Or hit 100 or 150 sixes by late evening.”
Yadwinder now works in Adelaide as a cricket coach, having moved to Australia in 2016 due to dwindling opportunities in Moga.
Until a Nestlé manufacturing facility came up in the district in 1961, the district was largely identifiable as the birthplace of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. About 30km south of Harmanpreet’s house in Dunneke is Rode, the ancestral village of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the controversial militant/martyr figure who was at the centre of the Sikh separatist movement in the 1980s. About as far to the north is Daulewala, the “drug capital of Punjab”, close to the border with Pakistan.
The first markers of urban habitation that meet the eye upon entry into “Moggya”, as the locals know it, are signboards atop roadside tea stalls. Diljeet Dosanjh, a Punjabi actor-singer, whose claim to national fame is starring in a Bollywood movie on Punjab’s drug problem, Udta Punjab, can be spotted chugging cola in most of them.
The streets and thoroughfares are dotted with billboards for visa agencies and for classes promising to help you ace the IELTS test for international study, work and migration.
“I had this friend whose only life goal as a teenager was to marry an NRI [Non-Resident Indian] and settle in Canada,” says Harmanpreet, whose younger sister, Hemjeet, is married to an NRI. Brother Gary, a former university-level cricketer, who is now among the more popular names on the local “Cosco cricket” circuit, doesn’t see himself spending his life in Moga.
Prophetic: the shirt Harmanpreet’s father bought for her the day she was bornAnnesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
“The Punjab education department has had a Sports Wings scheme in schools and colleges [since 1992],” says Yadwinder, “but cricket never featured in it.”
It was thanks to his father Kamaldheesh Sodhi’s love of cricket that a cricket academy came up in Gian Jyoti School, where Harmanpreet went on to study, in Moga’s Darapur village, in 2006. It is even now one of only two cricket-training centres for girls in Moga. If not for Kamaldheesh, Harmanpreet’s journey from playing step-out cricket shots with a hockey stick (“Papa used to teach me hockey but I only liked cricket”), to playing cricket with boys – her dupatta tied around her waist – might have ended at the Guru Nanak Dev College ground in the neighbourhood.
“Sodhi sir used to come to walk at the ground,” Harmanpreet says of the time, around 2006-07, when she first met the man she considers her godfather. “He asked me one day if I liked playing cricket or football. I told him I wanted to be a cricketer.” Kamaldheesh offered Harmanpreet free training and accommodation and convinced her father to let her join his academy.
Harmandar, 55, says he could have never been able to afford to give his daughter the platform the Sodhis gave her. The Bhullars used to raise livestock, selling milk from their four buffaloes for income to supplement Harmandar’s salary as a clerk in the Moga district court. Having two siblings meant Harmanpreet often had to make do with the cheapest bat available, or be denied gear altogether.
A former state-level basketball and handball player, and club cricketer, Harmandar raised Harmanpreet “like a son”, because “I wanted her to be the athlete I couldn’t be,” he says, a year on from the 2017 World Cup final. “When Harman used to come with me to the evening cricket matches, many from the neighbourhood said, ‘Ladki ko khilaake kya karoge?’ [What will you get by making a girl play cricket?] But I never cared about what others had to say.”
Harmandar says Harmanpreet, the oldest child in the family, was always responsible. When he wanted to take a loan to buy a new house, she persuaded him against it. “We used to live in a small house, and he felt that as an India cricketer I deserved better,” she says. “I didn’t want him to bear that enormous financial burden. We bought this house only when I was in a position to.”
That was about three years ago. By the time the Bhullars moved into their new house, Harmanpreet had moved from Moga to Mumbai. Diana Edulji, the former India captain, currently a member of the Committee of Administrators of the BCCI, was at the time sports officer at Western Railways. She had followed Harmanpreet’s all-round talent with interest since the latter’s days in junior cricket. Edulji requested Sachin Tendulkar to write a letter to the Railway ministry, getting Harmanpreet a job as a chief office superintendent in Mumbai with Western Railways in 2014.
Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
The Indian Railways have been the largest – and currently sole – employers of women cricketers since the inception of institutional cricket in the country. Employment opportunities in public-sector organisations are more or less non-existent for Indian female cricketers, unlike for their male counterparts, or even female athletes from some other sports. Support from the likes of Air India has, over time, also shrunk.
Harmanpreet approached Punjab Police for a job in 2012, when she was more than two years into her international career, only to be turned down. The BCCI was still three years away from introducing central contracts for women players, so the decision to move cities brought benefits. It didn’t do her game a lot of good at the start, though.
“There was barely any time for quality practice in Mumbai,” Harmanpreet says. She would wake at 5:30am, go for a morning practice session, come back to Bandra, where she shared a room at the Western Railways quarters with Kavita Patil, another Railways employee and currently a Maharashtra and India A fast bowler, and then get on a train to Mumbai Central, where the office was. She would often eat lunch in the train. At about 1pm, she would leave the office, having completed the mandatory half-day’s work, and head to another practice session.
“Even at the grounds where we would practise, there were specific slots for women’s cricketers for, say, only about two hours,” she remembers. “Most of the time we would end up practising in the indoor facility at the Bandra-Kurla Complex, using a bowling machine. Even with the medium-pacers around, how much can you improve as a batsman if balls are lobbed at you with a short run-up?”
Homesickness hit her soon. The Mumbai heat, and other demands of life in the city, wore her down.
“My cricket went downhill during those first 18-20 months in Mumbai,” she says. “The cricketer I could be simply on talent or basic skills, I had become that by 2015-16. I needed guidance to make the step up to the next level.”
She considered quitting her day job (“I realised cricket was a lot dearer to me than the money”) but was pulled back from the brink by a scheme the Railways Sports Promotion Board introduced in 2016-17. Starting that season, all Railways employees who finished as winners or on the runners-up team in the BCCI’s senior women’s inter-state one-day and T20 tournaments, could take 330 days’ leave in a year to work on their game.
Railways emerged champions in both competitions that season, which meant Harmanpreet had a new lease of life, cricket-wise. Towards the end of 2015, Patil introduced her to Harshal Pathak, a BCCI Level B coach and a former assistant coach of the Maharashtra Ranji team. A week-long session with him helped iron out tactical errors ahead of the tour of Australia in January 2016.
Harmanpreet lines up to send one into orbit during her 171 not out © Getty Images
“If ten people say ten different things about me,” says Harmanpreet, “my mind gets distracted easily. Harry sir realised that early. With his help and yoga, I was able to deal with my thoughts during batting.”
When I met Pathak in Pune this year, he demonstrated, with the help of his wife Shweta, herself a cricketer, how Harmanpreet’s “exaggerated” trigger movements with her feet, and multiple backswings, had been undermining her intent. “The speed range for a female pacer is around 90-125kph, so that huge initial movement was a waste,” Pathak says. “It took some convincing, but I simplified those into one backlift, so she had more time to perceive the ball.”
A change in how she took guard (more towards the off stump), extensive open-wicket sessions, and an emphasis on along-the-ground hitting in the arc between mid-on and midwicket were among the key focus areas during the two and a half months Harmanpreet spent in Pune after the 2016 World T20. And she trained under Pathak till the 2017 World Cup. The association, she says, marked a transition in her career, and so did the company of Patil.
“I started focusing on fitness because of her. Earlier I used to think the running and sprinting I do during batting is enough. Kavi is immensely fitness-conscious, so that discipline rubbed off on me.”
In the first two yo-yo tests conducted after the 2017 World Cup, Harmanpreet scored the highest among her India team-mates. She bettered her 17.2 in November last year with 18.5 this April. During the first of the tests, two high-profile men’s cricketers were watching her sprint at the NCA. One was Yuvraj Singh.
“He had come there for fitness [work]. He saw me running and casually asked what my score was. When I told him, he was like, ‘Tune 17.2 maara hain? Woh bhi indoor mein? Tu theek toh hain?‘ [You have done 17.2? Indoors? Are you okay?]
“Rahul [Dravid] sir is a little shy. He only said, ‘Good job’, but Yuvi bhaiya gave me a few tips on playing the front-foot pull. He said my hand-eye coordination is like Sehwag.”
“No, no, papa se panga lene ka iraada nahi tha,” [I didn’t mean to mess with my dad] Harmanpreet says, talking about the choice of her first India shirt number. “Initially he wanted me to choose 5 or 86, his favourite numbers. But later he said, ‘Look, take any number but 84.'”
Harry’s people: from left, brother Gary, mother Satwinder and father Harmandar Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Harmanpreet puts her eventual choice of 84 down to her Punjabi roots. Vernacular literature on Bhagat Singh, one of the leading freedom fighters in the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, left as lasting an impression on her in her formative years as did the tenets of Sikh philosophy – such as Chaurasi lakh joon upai, or the concept of the transmigration of the soul over 8.4 million lifetimes or possible lifeforms. More impactful still were the tales of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Punjab, following the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for her ordering a military operation earlier that year to purge the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar of Sikh separatist militants under Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – who was killed in the strike.
“As a kid, I always wondered how I could make this birth count,” Harmanpreet says. “You know, the way Chaurasi lakh explains.
“But I have vivid memories of dadi [grandmother] talking about how she feared letting papa travel to other cities [in Punjab, to play for more established teams] when he was young because of what happened after the riots.”
Around the time of Harmanpreet’s international debut, Harmandar had misgivings about the number. “Papa felt either I’ll perform poorly or something bad will happen when the team score reaches 84,” she says. I remind her of her maiden international half-century. “Yeah, that got stuck on 84, didn’t it?” she says.
That did not put her off clinging onto a number she had a fixation on – until the home series against West Indies in 2016. “I wanted people to focus only on my cricket, and the misreporting and the political references around 84 didn’t help. So I changed it to 17 – my lucky number.” Her first enrolment at a cricket academy and her India call-up came on the 17th – the latter when, ten days after the squad for the 2009 World Cup had been named, a chance phone call to Rajeshwari Goyal, the former India allrounder, late one night, brought Harmanpreet the news that she had been picked.
Anju Jain, the former India captain and the chairperson of the India women’s national selection committee at the time, remembers when she first saw Harmanpreet play, in the Inter-Zone Under-19 One-Day Competition of 2007-08, the first since the BCCI took over the women’s game.
“We were looking for youngsters who could hit a boundary at will,” Jain says. “Harman came across as someone not afraid of losing her wicket, not happy with just rotating the strike.” While Harmanpreet averaged only 37 in four innings at a strike rate of 59.2, her uninhibited approach got attention.
On the eve of her 20th birthday, Harmanpreet impressed with 4-0-10-0 on debut, in the World Cup, against Pakistan in Bowral. She also took a catch and made a run-out. A more forthright statement of intent came three games later.
Harmanpreet and Amita Sharma (right) walk off the ground after sealing the 2009 World Cup game against Australia © Getty Images
Australia had never lost to India in a World Cup match earlier. When she fronted up against a bowling allrounder who had 27 international matches behind her, Harmanpreet had faced no more than 18 balls in India colours. Taking strike at No. 7, in the 48th over she smashed Ellyse Perry for 10 off the first two balls.
“The six crashed into the roof of the ground,” says Amita Sharma, the former India vice-captain, who led Harmanpreet in India B’s title-winning campaign in the 2008 Challenger Trophy. “When she came in to bat, I told her, ‘Look, Harry, I’ve got my eye in, let me get back to strike.’ She innocently said, ‘Okay, didi. I’ll look for a single.’ And then the first two balls she faces, she goes dhoom, dhaam! I told her, ‘If this is how you take singles, I’d rather stay put at the non-striker’s end.'”
The unbeaten, eight-ball 19 would be the first episode in a long affair between Harmanpreet and Australia.
Three years later, when India hosted them for eight limited-overs matches, the home side lost every match save the last. In a series Jhulan Goswami described as a nightmare, Harmanpreet finished as India’s leading run scorer across formats, with three fifties – the most by a batsman on either side.
Fast forward to Australia Day in 2016, where in the T20I series opener, in Adelaide, Harmanpreet shepherded the lower order with a match-winning 31-ball 46, setting up India’s first bilateral series victory over Australia in any format.
In the inaugural edition of the WBBL, Mithali Raj and Goswami were not permitted by the Indian board to play for Adelaide Strikers, but in June 2016, the BCCI cleared all Indian women cricketers to compete in overseas leagues. When offers from the two Sydney WBBL franchises landed, Harmanpreet inked a deal with Thunder, becoming the first Indian cricketer – male or female – to sign an overseas-league contract.
The cradle: Gian Jyoti school in Darapur, where Harmanpreet studied Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Her season down under began with a sizzling 28-ball 47. She finished with an average of 59.6 – the highest by a batsman across WBBL seasons with 12 innings or more – and claimed Thunder’s Player-of-the-Tournament title.
Harmanpreet’s 171 not out in the World Cup semi-final propelled her, and the Indian women’s team, into the average cricket-watcher’s consciousness. In a show of ferocity unmatched – before or since – by an Indian woman cricketer, her 115-ball innings punched Australia, the undisputed masters of power-hitting in the women’s game, in the gut.
“She just raised the bar high enough to see what’s possible,” says former Australia vice-captain Alex Blackwell, who captains Harmanpreet at Sydney Thunder and coaches her at Lancashire Thunder in the Kia Super League. “In a pressure situation, taking her team to the World Cup final almost single-handedly… it’s the best knock I’ve ever seen. For a person with that tiny a frame, I was in awe of what Harmanpreet achieved.” Blackwell handed Harmanpreet her playing shirt as an acknowledgement of the effort.
Making the highest individual score in a women’s World Cup knockout has been the highest point in Harmanpreet’s career. But a more satisfying memory for her is the innings that came just before it.
“Whatever I did in the semi-final was because of the confidence from the New Zealand game,” she says. It was her first fifty in 17 innings, and her most substantial knock since a run-a-ball unbeaten 41 in the World Cup Qualifier final in February 2017.
An injury to the left ring finger, sustained during India’s second match in the World Cup, had cast a shadow on her future in the tournament. “At the time, she was also struggling with a back injury,” says Tracy Fernandes, the team’s physio. “As we made our way out of the field [after the second game], I remember her saying, with teary eyes, ‘My World Cup is over.'”
“When the team was winning, I was able to keep the frustration at bay,” Harmanpreet says, “But after a point, it started getting to me. Before the New Zealand game [a must-win for India], my dad told me over the phone, ‘Don’t give up just yet.'”
Tushar Arothe, the India head coach at the time, says Harmanpreet’s lean batting spell in the early stages of the tournament wasn’t as much a concern as was the likely psychological impact of the dislocated finger. “But full credit to Tracy for giving me confidence and backing Harman. Had it been any other physio, Harman could have been on the next flight to India.”
The innings against New Zealand, in which she went from 28 off 54 balls to 60 off 90 and anchored a 132-run third-wicket stand with Raj, set the template for what was to follow. Against Australia, her acceleration was more astounding.
“I was on 30-something, I think, after 50 balls [37 off 54]. In the 24-25th over, I looked at the scoreboard and felt 200-250 is not going to cut it against the Aussie girls. At that point, I told Mithali di, “I’m going to start.” [laughs] She said, ‘Okay, if you want to hit, go ahead.'”
The pressure was released with the free hit that legspinner Kristen Beams offered in the 27th over. “After that, I started targeting specific areas for offspinners, left-arm spinners, because there wasn’t much turn on the wicket,” Harmanpreet says.
She whacked a six and a four off Beams’ next three balls to bring up her fifty off 64 deliveries. She ended up taking 110 off 72 deliveries from Australia’s spin trio, including 45 off just 20 balls from left-armer Jess Jonassen.
It was her 137-run stand, at over ten runs an over, with 19-year-old Deepti Sharma that produced the most remarkable scenes of the blockbuster innings.
Someday that’ll be us: cricketers Avneet Kaur and Ramanpreet Kaur look at a framed jersey of Harmanpreet’s in the office of Kamaldheesh Sodhi, the founder of Gian Jyoti School Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
On 98, Harmanpreet called for two, only for Sharma to turn the second down – before scurrying to complete it perilously. The mix-up angered Harmanpreet. At the hundred, off went the bandana, the helmet came hurtling down, and the non-striker copped an almighty verbal volley.
To team-mate Smriti Mandhana, one aspect of the scene struck a chord. “It was one of the strangest things I’ve seen,” says Mandhana of the first time she saw Harmanpreet celebrate a hundred, her first in international cricket, against England in the 2013 World Cup. “Earlier in the match, she celebrated a run-out [she had effected] like someone celebrates a century, in that aggressive Harman style. But when she got the hundred, she just took her cap off. To me, it felt like something only a team player would do. You know, not celebrate a personal milestone…”
Harmanpreet did not take the field during Australia’s chase, for her job was done. In any case, Fernandes says, she was practically not in a condition to even walk. The physio and Trupti Bhattacharya, the team manager, had to revitalize, and then bridle, Harmanpreet. “She had lost a lot of fluids and was sliding into hypothermia,” Fernandes says. “We wrapped her up in blankets, gave her bottles of electrolyte – she had to use a straw.
“She batted on an almost empty stomach because we hadn’t had a proper breakfast before the match. But when she started feeling a little better and saw Blackwell knock off the runs on the [dressing-room] TV, she said, ‘No, you don’t understand. They’re taking this away. I have to go. I may have to bowl.’ The doctor had to step in and tell her that if she went, she could collapse.”
In the seven months before the match, Harmanpreet had had a number of health concerns. Intersection syndrome, a condition in the right wrist, that began with an injury sustained during her first WBBL, affected her through the qualifier in February. A nagging rotator cuff (shoulder) strain picked up in 2013-14 also flared up, restricting her throwing abilities.
During the World Cup, a hamstring pull she suffered while bowling against South Africa led to another niggle a day before the semi-final. “My skin is immensely sensitive,” says Harmanpreet. “I had been icing my left thigh to ease the hamstring. But in the middle of the night, I woke up and saw the inner-side skin had stuck to my shorts.” She was unsure if she would be able to wear a thigh guard in the semi-final.
In 2014, a spinal disc problem that surfaced during her maiden camp with Railways had led to a stiff back. Five days after she had been advised against bowling, to avoid subjecting her back to rotational movements, Harmanpreet sent down 41.2 overs of part-time offspin in the one-off Test against South Africa and hobbled into the record books with figures of 9 for 85, the second-best Test figures by an Indian woman.
“She had worked out specific cues for some deliveries,” says Sushma Verma, the wicketkeeper in that match. “All I needed to do was pick those. ‘Here comes the wrong’un… and bowled! Now the quicker one… plumb!’ It was comical how she kept getting them right one after the other.”
Talk like you bat: Harmanpreet has earned a reputation for taking no prisoners when she speaks Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Among her closest friends on the circuit, Verma is known to play multiple roles in relation to Harmanpreet: rolling her arm over during the latter’s range-hitting sessions, taking selfies for her to post on social media before the World Cup, and being a confidant in times of distress.
“The morning after we lost the World Cup final, I just couldn’t just drag myself out of my room,” Harmanpreet says. “I had wept through the night and Sush tried to console me. She said, ‘Look, [PV] Sindhu [the Indian badminton player] got a silver [at Rio in 2016], so we haven’t done bad either.'”
Harmanpreet hasn’t ever watched the highlights of the final. “What’s there to watch?” she asks, almost as if revolted. “It was heartbreaking. Everything ended even before we could realise.”
Chasing 229 – and their maiden world title – India cruised and then hobbled to 200, 51 of which Harmanpreet made. But with India needing 91 off 100, she swept straight into the hands of deep square leg. A lower-order collapse soon after saw India lose their next seven wickets for 28 runs, and with them, the World Cup.
Despite the second-place finish, India’s breakout campaign brought much needed visibility to the team, and to the women’s game at large. The tournament’s 180 million reach, according to the ICC, included a 500% increase in viewing hours in India since 2013. The overall viewership for the final touched a record high of 126 million in India – as many people as watched the 2017 IPL final. On the web, #WWC17Final was the most tweeted hashtag for a women’s sport final.
There was a windfall of cash rewards for the team. The BCCI awarded Rs 50 lakh (approximately US$67,500) to each member of the side for qualifiying for the final. And it culminated in the board updating the women’s pay scale for the first time since November 2015 (when central contracts were introduced for Indian women cricketers). The top-tier central contract retainers went up by over 200%, and domestic cricketers, usually neglected, received pay increases too.
“I have heard of the struggles of Mithali di and Jhulu di and so many other female cricketers before them – how they had to pay out of their own pockets [to play for the country],” Harmanpreet says. “I would often ask Jhulu di, ‘Paaji, when are we going to get the same love and acceptance as the men’s team?’
With fielding coach Biju George in Mumbai last month Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
“I think 80-85% of that has been achieved because of the World Cup. The 15% that’s left… if we had got those ten runs, it might have brought us closer to being on an equal footing with the men.”
Apart from the direct cash rewards, the World Cup turned the Indian women’s team into a brand and pushed some of the players into the reckoning when it came to endorsements. Raj and Harmanpreet were among Yahoo India’s “Top Ten Most Searched Sportspeople” in 2017, and Mandhana has received endorsement offers aplenty. “Whatever [financial benefits] we are getting today may not have happened without Harry’s 171,” says Ekta Bisht, the India left-arm spinner.
Harmanpreet became the first Indian female cricketer to be signed by CEAT, the tyre brand. She made it into Forbes India’s “30 under 30” list; gained an out-of-turn promotion as Officer on Special Duty from the Railway ministry; received an Arjuna Award for 2017; and was appointed a deputy superintendent of police by the Punjab government.
It wasn’t the first time India had played a World Cup final; they had done so in 2005 too – in strikingly different circumstances.
The five-star Royal Garden Hotel in London, which hosted the Indian team ahead of the 2017 final, was several steps up from the university dormitories (most of them lacking air-conditioning) they had occupied in South Africa 12 years before. The BCCI took over administration of women’s cricket in India from the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI) in November 2006, so cash rewards from the WCAI for making the 2005 final were out of the question. The attendance at SuperSport Park, where Australia defeated India, was only a fraction of the full house at Lord’s. And in contrast to the multimedia broadcast of the 2017 final, the 2005 edition didn’t even make it onto television in India.
Harmanpreet’s own memories of that 2005 World Cup campaign are second-hand recollections, most of them passed down by Raj and Goswami, who were part of both finals.
“There was no social media back then. It was difficult for such news to reach in Moga [in 2005]. Until my late teens, I had no idea if India had a women’s team, let alone [knowing about] Jhulu di and Mithali di playing the World Cup.
“After we beat England [in the second match of the 2017 World Cup], so many cricketers, politicians, film stars started wishing, following us on Twitter,” says Harmanpreet. “All of a sudden, we became known faces.”
RP Singh, the Punjab women’s team coach since 2011-12, says that the 171 has led to greater interest in cricket among girls across Punjab, but adds that “only better infrastructure such as a residential academy for girls, like they have in Andhra Pradesh and Himachal, will encourage girls from the villages to take up cricket”.
The Harman effect: girls train at Moga’s Guru Nanak Dev College Ground, where a teenage Harmanpreet first played cricket with boys Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Since Harmanpreet’s debut only two female cricketers from the state – bowling allrounder Sneh Rana and wicketkeeper-batsman Taniya Bhatia – have played for India. Much of it, says Singh, is down to the domestic structure.
Of the 22 districts in Punjab, a (district) team can play a maximum of only three games a year – and that is if they make the final. “What will these girls learn in three games?” Singh asks. “Harman’s journey is proof what talent from small towns and villages can do. All they need is proper support.”
Before her 171 not out, a solitary photograph of Harmanpreet, from the 2009 World Cup, could be found at the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA), on one of the walls of the boardroom, next to pictures of Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, and other male cricketers from the state who debuted for India this century. Following that innings, she figures in the PCA’s hall of fame, alongside Mohinder Amarnath, Bishan Bedi, and other “Shaan-e-Punjab”.
There is a certain quicksilver energy about Harmanpreet’s personality. Every so often I think she’s going to stop the interview and take flight, but that doesn’t happen. She’s affable, self-assured, and makes the occasional self-deprecating joke: “I think my mood swings could be because of my Punjabi genes.”
“I only have two personalities,” she says “I’m a shy person off the field. If I’m not enjoying something, nobody can force me to do it. On the field I am very aggressive – you know, ‘Yeh toh tod-phodh kar dalegi‘ type. I’m too involved every time I take the field. That’s because there’s only one thing I’ve done all my life: play cricket. But I never allow myself to get worked up during batting. It’s a peaceful space. I’m focused on the ball and the bowler’s arm. I don’t how that happens, but that’s how it is.”
The paradoxes that escape her understanding define the player and the person she is. The co-existence of method and madness is what makes Harmanpreet.
“I don’t like to hold things back,” she says. “I am a simple and transparent person, and I say it as I see it. If I don’t like something, I keep quiet, but it shows in my body language.
“That also reflects in the way I play sport. I am very competitive even when I play football. At times, my friends and team-mates say, “Arre, take it easy, it’s just a warm-up game.’ I tell them, ‘For you it’s just a warm-up game, for me it’s a game, and I just cannot lose.'”
With predecessor Raj. ‘Until my late teens, I had no idea if India had a women’s team, let alone [knowing about] Jhulu di and Mithali di playing the World Cup’ © Hindustan Times/Getty Images
She admits her competitiveness is hardwired in combativeness. It is vaguely similar to that of Goswami, the captain she made her debut under in limited-overs cricket, and wholly unlike that of Raj, who has captained her most. Mandhana, who is next in line to take over the reins of captaincy, admits there’s aggression in her batting too. “But it’s very different to Harry di‘s”.
Harmanpreet’s occasional lack of restraint has sometimes got her in trouble. In 2016, a disgruntled flinging of the bat upon dismissal in a WBBL game against Hobart Hurricanes brought her a penalty. Earlier this year, a comment made at the post-match presentation after India lost their third match in a row in the T20I tri-series didn’t go down very well with some of her team-mates. “We need fit players in the team… who can run all across the ground,” Harmanpreet said. “As a captain, it is very difficult for me to run all around and then set the field.”
Without that freewheeling nature, though, there can be no Harmanpreet. Her forthrightness shines in the dressing room, among three generations of India’s female cricketers. “Whatever conversations I’ve had with Harry di, she has mostly asked me to play my natural game,” says Mandhana, who is among the six players in ODIs, and 15 in T20Is, who have debuted under Harmanpreet, more than half of whom are current India regulars. “And now when I see her around a Jemi [Jemimah Rodrigues], Pooja [Vastrakar] and Taniya, it’s not that she speaks to them for hours, but the little things she does, you know, cracking jokes, dancing with them on the eve of the match – all that makes a youngster really comfortable.”
Among the 14 captains who have led in 25 T20Is or more, Harmanpreet, the youngest Indian woman to captain in the format, has the third-best win percentage. In the last 11 months, India won both their T20I bilateral series – against South Africa and Sri Lanka, both away from home – under Harmanpreet but lost both their multi-team T20I events: the T20I tri-series and the Asia Cup (where she herself regained form with a Player-of-the-Tournament performance).
The shock loss of the title in that last tournament triggered a falling-out between Arothe and some of the senior players. Following his resignation, Arothe singled out Harmanpreet for what he believed was her unwillingness to come out of her comfort zone.
“Tushar sir has always supported me – even when he was our fielding coach [2009-11]. But hamari soch kabhi kabhi nahi milti thi [We had differences of opinion]. As a group – and it wasn’t only me – we felt we needed to step up. You can’t expect players to improve on their own. We needed a more up-to-date perspective, so a coach with international experience, who could help us strategise better, even when the conditions are not in our favour, was the need of the hour. Our spin attack needed this particularly.”
The past year alone has been a rollercoaster ride for Harmanpreet. Allegations that her graduation degree was fake emerged soon after the Asia Cup loss, to stand alongside professional highs such as the two-year extension to her WBBL contract, captaining the IPL Supernovas to victory in the first ever Women’s T20 Challenge game, between two all-star sides featuring the best players from across the world, becoming the maiden recipient of the award for the BCCI’s Best International Cricketer (women) for the 2016-17 season, and debuting in the KSL after missing out due to injury in the last season.
“The only thing I’ve always wanted is the winning shot to come off my bat” © IDI/Getty Images
The journey, especially since becoming the full-time T20I captain in 2016, says Harmanpreet, has been “a big learning curve”.
“Just the realisation that I’m in a position now where I need to be more considerate towards people around me,” she says. “It’s about trying to make sure I don’t hurt others. I think I’ve become somewhat more willing to accept and work on my mistakes. It’s not easy making small adjustments to your nature overnight. But it’s good to be learning.”
The Indian dressing room is in transition. A team that toiled away in obscurity for generations has now achieved a status somewhat approximating celebrity. Amid these changing dynamics, a moment of reckoning awaits Harmanpreet as she eyes greater batting consistency and looks to evolve from captain to leader and role model.
“Cricket ke ilaawa mujhe kuch aata nahi [I don’t know anything other than cricket]. But when I’m done with cricket, I would want to do what I can in my limited capacity to make sure girls playing sport in India, their journey becomes easier.”
It’s hard to imagine Harmanpreet, now 29, will go on to become the kind of statistical behemoth some of her colleagues already are, or pile up as many records as some of her younger team-mates promise to do. But she will likely leave behind a legacy that will transcend traditional metrics.
“People will perhaps remember me for 171, for scores bigger and smaller. Innings from the past or the future. The only thing I’ve always wanted is the winning shot to come off my bat. Whether it’s a single or a six, it doesn’t matter to me – my dream is to be the one who hits the winning runs for my team.”
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo