ICC Women's World Cup 2017: Mithali Raj and Co. are champions in their own way, despite not lifting the trophy

So close, so near, it felt as if they would make it, but failed by few inches. But is that it for the Indian eves? Just a couple of congratulatory tweets from fellow countrymen? Aren't they champions in their own way?

New Delhi: So close, so near, it felt as if they would make it, but failed by few inches. But is that it for the Indian eves? Just a couple of congratulatory tweets from fellow countrymen? Aren't they champions in their own way?

Mithali Raj and her pack of blues were no way the favourites when they headed to England for the ICC Women's World Cup 2017. Yes, but they did dominate the 22 yards of space for the last one year or so in their own way. 16 consecutive victories on the trot between February 2016 and May 2017. That was the second longest winning streak in women's ODI cricket.

The team indeed had ample potential in the form of both young and experienced players. While on one hand there was Mithali Raj, and her six consecutive half-centuries, the bowling department had the 34-year-old Jhulan Goswami, who became the highest ever wicket-taker in ODI scenario in women's cricket. But that's not all. The team also had two youngs guns in the form of Deepti Sharma and Smriti Mandhana. The former's ravishing 188 against Ireland, earlier this year, has already put her name on the history books.

Their glorious long run also included the ICC Women's World Cup qualifier where they had emerged victorious. Edging past four teams in the group stage and then five others in the Super Six stage, Team India had set up a date with Dan van Niekerk's South African army. It was a class of a brilliance from the vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur that gifted the Indian side their title.

Eight was needed off the last two deliveries and were up against South Africa in the final qualifying encounter. One for a six over the midwicket and the next ball for a two between the wickets and that was it for the Women in Blue. Sounds picturesque! And India booked their tickets for England.

In a recent interview to Indian Express, Committee of Administrators (CoA) member Diani Edulji revealed the kind of difficulties that women cricketers in India face – few who headed to England for the World Cup didn't even have a cricket kit. "Last time when I travelled to England as a manager we were given £25 per day. Girls used to get packed food from the supermarket nearby, boil it and eat it," she added.

Amid all these difficulties, Mithali Raj and Co, flew down to England to chase, in what could be a miraculous dream.

Hosts England were the first team they faced. India were Davids in the battle and as the story goes, it was the Women in Blue who struck down Goliath in their campaign opener. Opener Smriti Mandhana smashed a 90 and the skipper became the first women cricketer to notch up seven consecutive half-centuries as India registered a 35-runs victory over Heather Knight-led side. And thus began the Indian juggernaut.

They went on to stun West Indies in the very next match. Then arch-rivals Pakistan and finally Asian neighbours Sri Lanka. The Women in Blue were up and rolling and seemed rather unstoppable. One more win and they could see themselves in the semis. But their hope of making it to the next round was obstructed by the South Africans. Van Niekerk spun a thriller to cease the India roller coaster and thus came the first setback for Mithali Raj.

A similar scenario followed when they locked horns against the Australians. Despite a record-breaking feat by the captain and a century by Punam Raut, India found themselves in a topsy-turvy stage in the tournament.

Australia, England, and South Africa had qualified for the semis. One place still left and the battle was between India and New Zealand. Ahead of the high-pressure game, Mithali said, "If it is a very crucial game which decides the win, we have usually faltered in that match." Such was the choice of her words.

But India did it! A massive 186-run win over the White Ferns and India were back after succumbing to two back-to-back defeats. "In the earlier editions, we’ve seen one bad day and then we’ve never made a comeback into the tournament. I’m extremely happy that the girls made a comeback. I think this is a new India team,” Raj had said.

They made it to the semis and were just two steps away from the trophy. But what stood between them and glory was Australia, once again. They were the defending champions and had crumbled down the Indians in the group stage. But the 'new India' as described by Mithali defied all odds to stupify the Southern Stars. Another round of heroics from Harmanpreet and India stormed into their first ICC World Cup final since 2005.

"I am speechless," exclaimed Mithali after the victory. "For me and Jhulan (Goswami), it is very special because we are two players from 2005 (ICC World Cup) who have been with the team. It seems like it’s going back to 2005, and I am just too happy that the girls have given us an opportunity to be a part of the World Cup Final again."

It was a massive moment for Indian cricket, for women's cricket especially, for all those girls who dream of being cricketers or even sportspersons. And even the final was then yet to be played, Mithali Raj and her pack of blue had already inked their names as legends.

With the hope of the entire nation on their shoulders and a million glued to their TV sets, Team India headed to the home of cricket, Lord's, to play against the hosts and three-time finalists England.

A scintillating spell from old-horse Jhulan Goswami with a little assistance from Poonam Yadav and India ceased the English side to 228 runs. The run rate was well below five and it seemed to be a rather easy target for the visitors.

But old problems creeped in. They started off slow with Mandhana going for a straight duck. Mithali stepped in but failed to turn the game on their side. Harmanpreet was the hope, especially after her stellar 171, two days back. There seemed to be a rather good partnership between Raut and Kaur, but a poorly timed shot found Kaur back in the pavilion. The struggling Indian side finally found themselves in a moment where they needed just 29 off 33 balls with still five wickets in their bag. But who knew that the game that felt would swing the Indian way was swung back by Anya Shrubole in the English way.

Few desperate attempts to go for a biggy, panicky moments, ample anxiety and Indians simply gifted wickets to the England. The three-time champions became four as England defeated the Indians by just nine runs.

"Yes, I'm proud of the team. It wasn't easy for England but credit to them for keeping their nerves. There was a time where the match was in the balance, but we panicked and that led to our defeat," Raj said after the match. "I'm very proud of the girls. They didn't make any match look easy for the other team. We did very well in the tournament. All the youngsters in the team tried their best," she added.

Defying all odds, answering back all criticisms, the Pack of Blues made it to the final. They did fail to lift the trophy, Mithali failed to warp up her unfinished business, but they emerged champions. Yes, in their own way, but they surely did.  

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