Thursday, 27 July 2017

The 24 hours of the World Cup Final #WWC17

There were India shirts. There were England shirts. Even a few Netherlands shirts. White skin. Brown skin. Black skin. Old skin. Young skin. Male. Female. The loud types. They bibulous types. The shy types. They were all there. In queues that would have stretched back to St. John’s Wood station if they were lined up straight.

They were all there for the cricket.

Not women’s cricket, one fan told me. He was waiting for his mother, and showed me the 20-pound ticket he paid 100 pounds for. “I paid 100 pounds to support India in the Champions Trophy, so I can pay that much to support India here also.”

I knew that Lord’s was sold out, but I didn’t know what sold out meant. When I saw this crowd, a familiar pit in my stomach opened up; the one I felt before a moment in a big game that I knew –just knew— would be pivotal. That feeling that a series of dot balls creates, the expectant pressure, knowing that a big shot or a wicket is coming.

I knew it in my gut. Something big was about to happen.

The first person I saw when I stepped into the media centre was the woman who had perhaps more to do with this day than any other. “I can’t believe this is happening for a women’s match”, I told Clare Connor, head of women’s cricket at the ECB and chairman of the ICC women’s committee. The emotion must have showed in my voice; she put a hand on my shoulder, almost as if to reassure me that this was not a dream.

The UFO-shaped media centre at Lord’s has a killer view, but there was only one place I wanted to be for the national anthems. After completing my media commitments outside the ground, I ran all the way back in (probably breaking a few decorum rules in the process), and took the steps two-at-a-time to the nearest stand as “Who runs the World” played. My heart was still racing from the sprint as our national anthem played, and that feeling in my stomach was back, along with an itch in my tear glands. But it was not the time for tears yet.

They almost came when Jhulan Goswami finished her spell, and I gave her a standing ovation, press box decorum be damned. Watching her –the reason I had dreamed of playing for the country— be so nerveless in a final, I said to my heart: this is her moment. This spell would turn the game, and help India win. She would get the fairytale finish she deserved. Finally, after all those years of silent labour, after the doubts, without and within, her career would come full circle at Lord’s.

Stupid, Snehal Pradhan. You had forgotten that sport is not a movie. There is no script, no certainty, and no such thing as a fairytale ending. There is reality.

The reality was that Mithali Raj did not take off her pads after she was run out for 17. I couldn’t tell you whether she does this often, or whether it was just the pressure of the final that rendered her motionless. Because Mithali Raj hardly gets out early.

When the eighth wicket fell, Mithali di finally did take them off. When the tenth wicket went down, Jhulan di still had hers on. They were bearing her weight as she knelt, and her hear bore the weight of her hands, and her face bore the weight of 15 years of international cricket distilled into one torturous moment.

She came out to face the media, long after the appointed hour, but we waited patiently, allowing them as much time as they needed to sit next to their disbelief. When she did come, it was with the same grace that Mithali di had shown in the post-match press conference. But Mithali di is captain cool, and wore her mask better; Jhulu di’s pain was closer to the surface, in her whispered voice and straight back. She gave England the credit, and spoke of the future, but the present haunted her eyes, as did the past.

I left the ground confused. I had witnessed the greatest day in the history of the game. I had witnessed England win a World Cup they deserved. I had seen the Indian team defy logic, and reach a final they had no business being in. I knew that this was a win, whatever the result. But they had gone so close. So close.

More than one person asked me if I was ok. I didn’t know. Back home, I sat down to write this piece. I wanted to retell the emotions of the night as accurately as the scorecard told the score. But I wasn’t feeling them myself. Close to midnight, exhaustion and futility overtook me; I gave up, I decided I needed some distance.

A two hour nap later, I was still groggy as I typed. But as I retold the events of the evening, the adrenalin started flowing as the words wound their way through the match. By the end of it, I had been wide awake for two hours, and at 4:30 AM, I finally pressed SEND.

As the London sky outside my window started to lighten, the tears finally came. The writing had been cathartic, had helped me identify and structure the emotions I felt. I sunk to the floor of the kitchen in the flat I was in so my sobs would not wake the friends I was rooming with. I thought of the team, and how my pain must be but a fraction of theirs. Snot fell from my nose as I tweeted this:

"I am so proud of this @BCCIWomen team. Your time will come. And I hope I'll be there to see it when it does. Been lucky to watch this effort"

Funny how one of the best days of my life had ended in tears. Finding sleep was difficult. Finding peace was easier. This tournament will do more for women’s cricket in India than all the years since 2005 combined. Sorry, not women’s cricket. It’s just cricket. Things have changed.