Eng­land strike blow for women’s game

High hopes that thrilling World Cup fi­nal could be a land­mark mo­ment

The Guardian Weekly - - Sport - Vic Marks

It is the women who know how to en­thral. Af­ter two riv­et­ing World Cup semi-fi­nals else­where, here was a fi­nal that had a ca­pac­ity crowd ner­vously glued to their seats one mo­ment, then leap­ing out of them in de­light yet still never know­ing which side would pre­vail un­til the fi­nal ball was bowled.

In the end it was Eng­land’s women who held their nerve. With the per­for­mance of a life­time, Anya Shrub­sole bowled Eng­land to a mirac­u­lous nine-run World Cup win over In­dia with a re­mark­able spell of six for 46 – the best World Cup bowling fig­ures for Eng­land and the coun­try’s se­cond best in all one-day in­ter­na­tional cricket. Some­how the men’s games this sum­mer have been dis­ap­point­ingly one-sided by com­par­i­son.

This was not the deco­rous Lord’s of sea­sons past. The fans were chant­ing and gasp­ing at every twist and turn. In the fi­nal overs each ball pro­voked rau­cous cheers from one set of fans or the other. Bril­liant run-outs, scram­bled sin­gles, des­per­ate dropped catches and then at the end – just as in the semi-fi­nal at Bris­tol – Shrub­sole was en­gulfed by team-mates, ex­hausted not so much by the de­mands of the game but by the ten­sion of a mag­nif­i­cent fi­nal. One-day cricket is a won­der­ful game when the out­come seems all-im­por­tant.

At Bris­tol against South Africa Shrub­sole faced one ball and hit it for four just when Eng­land ap­peared to be mak­ing a mess of a straight­for­ward run chase – ex­cept that there is no such thing in a semi-fi­nal. Here Eng­land were strug­gling in the field with In­dia bang on tar­get. In their 42nd over they were 191 for three, need­ing only 38 more for vic­tory.

Then the ball was tossed to Shrub­sole of Som­er­set, known as the quick­est bowler born in the north of the county – es­pe­cially when Pe­ter Trego is in earshot – and some­how she tin­kered with fate. The dis­missal of Pu­nam Raut, who had bat­ted with such pol­ish and poise for her 86, prompted the first signs of panic among the chasers.

Then there was a cer­tain magic about every Shrub­sole de­liv­ery, partly be­cause just about all of them had that spe­cial qual­ity; they were straight. She yorked the vastly ex­pe­ri­enced Jhu­lan Goswami first ball but per­haps her best de­liv­ery was her last. Her op­po­nent was not the most for­mi­da­ble – Ra­jesh­war Gayak­wad is not the best of bat­ters. But con­sider the pre­vi­ous de­liv­ery: a gen­tle catch to mid-off from the bat of Poonam Ya­dav would surely seal it for Eng­land but Jenny Gunn, renowned for her reliability, dropped it.

How easy to de­spair and lose con­cen­tra­tion af­ter such an er­ror. But Shrub­sole re­mained icily cool – at least on the out­side. The next de­liv­ery had that deadly qual­ity again; it was on tar­get. The bails lit up and the cel­e­bra­tions could com­mence. Shrub­sole was the player of a breath­tak­ing match.

This was one of the great Lord’s fi­nals and there was a buzz around St John’s Wood be­fore a ball was bowled. On the Welling­ton Road the ticket touts were out in force and they seemed more ea­ger to buy than sell. Not even Rachael Hey­hoe Flint, one of the world’s great op­ti­mists and the cap­tain of Eng­land in the first World Cup fi­nal in 1973, would have dared to en­vis­age this.

Hey­hoe Flint, a won­der­ful pi­o­neer who died in Jan­uary, was hon­oured be­fore the start of a match that al­ready felt like a cel­e­bra­tion and a ma­jor land­mark of the women’s game. Clare Con­nor, the head of women’s cricket at the Eng­land and Wales Cricket Board, joked as she looked out at the stands fill­ing up, that “my work is done”. In fact she never rests.

Soon, Eileen Ash (née Whe­lan), who made her de­but for Eng­land against Aus­tralia at Northamp­ton in 1937, rang the bell in front of the bowler’s bar. At the age of 105 she did so with a vigour that ri­valled the ef­forts of Henry Blofeld dur­ing the Eng­land men’s Test match against South Africa.

Goswami was in­spi­ra­tional in the field for In­dia. She is one of the two vastly ex­pe­ri­enced cor­ner­stones of the In­dian side along with the cap­tain, Mithali Raj. Both of them played in In­dia’s pre­vi­ous World Cup fi­nal in Pre­to­ria in 2005; both are 34 and play­ing in their last World Cup. How close they came to that tro­phy.

Goswami could not have bowled bet­ter. Raj, who made her de­but for In­dia in 1999, was run out by a slick piece of field­ing by Nat Sciver. She seemed not to recog­nise the dan­ger; there was no last-minute ac­cel­er­a­tion and cer­tainly no dive. Maybe no one fielded with such ath­leti­cism when she started play­ing the game.

Even in de­feat In­dia’s per­for­mances may change how women’s cricket is viewed in their coun­try. World Cup fi­nals in­volv­ing In­dia tend to do that. In 1983 there was no real en­thu­si­asm for one-day cricket in In­dia, where­upon Kapil Dev’s side, against the odds, de­feated the mighty West Indies in the World Cup fi­nal at Lord’s. Sud­denly Kapil was king and the en­tire coun­try was en­chanted by the one-day game.

Like­wise in 2007 they were a bit sniffy about this new­fan­gled Twenty20 idea un­til one Septem­ber night in Jo­han­nes­burg, when In­dia de­feated Pak­istan in the first World Twenty20 fi­nal, af­ter which the game would never be the same again.

Some­how one senses this World Cup fi­nal at Lord’s will also have ma­jor ram­i­fi­ca­tions. Any­one fancy a women’s In­dian Premier League?

Tom Jenk­ins

Selfie cel­e­bra­tion … Eng­land crick­eters join in with the fes­tive mood of a sell­out Lord’s crowd af­ter win­ning the Women’s World Cup

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