Mithali Raj’s classy 109 – her first century in more than three years, and also the first-ever against a top-three nation – was a perfect lesson on batting. Harmanpreet Kaur (60) and Veda Krishnamurthy (70) batted around her to take India to 265 for 7 – its highest total against New Zealand. Then, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, India’s highest wicket-taker in the Women’s Championship but playing her first game in the tournament in place of an out-of-form Ekta Bisht, returned career-best figures of 5 for 15 as New Zealand was bowled out for 79 in 25.3 overs – its lowest against India. The 186-run win made India the fourth team, after England, Australia and South Africa, to qualify for the semi-finals.
Put in to bat in overcast conditions with the floodlights on, India’s two most high-profile batters absorbed the pressure after Poonam Raut edged an outswinger from Lea Tahuhu to be caught at slip and Smriti Mandhana played on from a Hannah Rowe delivery.
At 21 for 2 in 7.4 overs, India needed Raj and Kaur to produce the best show of their lives. It could have been so easy for them to go into their shell like the batting unit had done on occasion through the tournament, but they worked out that with New Zealand playing a bowler short, it was a matter of targeting one bowler at a time.
While the New Zealand seamers targeted Kaur with a few short balls, Amelia Kerr, the 16-year-old leg-spinner, like in the defeat against England at the same venue a few days back, allowed the pressure to be released. Kaur swept her, while Raj used her feet. It forced Suzie Bates to staunch the flow of runs with Amy Satterthwaite’s offspin, but that also did not work.
India reached 100 in the 28th over, and then came the phase where the duo switched gears. Kaur changed her bat after reaching fifty and hit two fours off Bates’ over, but then fell off the first ball of the batting Power Play. Eager to press on, she played Leigh Kasperek, New Zealand’s best bowler with figures of 3 for 45, against the turn to be caught and bowled on the second attempt.
Rowe had Deepti Sharma spectacularly caught behind by Rachel Priest diving to her left, as India scored just one in the first two overs of the batting Power Play and was reduced to 154 for 4. It looked like a collapse was on the cards, but out came Veda to play a career-defining innings.
She played almost all shots with attacking intent, taking a particular liking for the inside out lofted drives to the cover fence. India has always lacked that kind of a push in its innings, and it must have also taken New Zealand by surprise. The 13-over partnership also included a brace that took Raj to a much-deserved century. India scored 90 runs in the last 10 overs to really turn the heat on New Zealand, who dropped four catches and a stumping.
Veda, who scored 38 runs after being dropped, had played a similarly defining knock against Sri Lanka, and it breathed fresh air into the team. Carrying that confidence into the field, the opening pair of Shikha Pandey and Jhulan Goswami picked up both the openers.
It was up to Satterthwaite, Katie Martin and Sophie Devine, playing with a side-strain, to construct the chase after Bates’s departure, but it was never going to be easy against India’s spinners. Deepti was the first to strike when, after a dry spell of not many boundaries, Martin hit her straight to Kaur at mid-wicket.
The slide started when Gayakwad slowed her pace and Satterthwaite stepped out to play down the wrong line and be stumped. With the 24-run stand broken, India never allowed New Zealand to come back.
When Deepti dived backward just outside the inner circle to catch Devine in the 20th over and give Gayakwad her second wicket, the writing was on the wall. Wickets fell like nine pins after that much to the cheer of a vociferous Indian contingent in the crowd as India booked its first semi-final berth in an ICC event in seven years; the last one being the 2010 Women’s World T20.
Indian broadcaster, Star Sports, made a decision to elevate this match from digital platforms to terrestrial TV and they could not have chosen a better match to widen the fan base for women’s cricket in the sport’s largest market.