“Yesterday, my thoughts when I stepped out in the middle at Lord’s and I stood in the wicket was ‘Oh. My. God.’ I was looking at the stands and thinking, every single one of these seats is taken, and I was thinking, I can’t do it. I can’t do it!
“But I’ve come today and I’m just excited! It’s a dream come true and I’ve always wanted to be here.”
Alex Hartley is likely speaking for most of the England and India sides as they get ready to play the biggest match of their lives, the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 final, at Lord’s on Sunday.
It’s just another match to be won, they’ll attempt to convince themselves and the gathering of reporters larger than they’ve ever encountered before in their careers. The pressure is all on the home side, India will claim. The subcontinental side will be under the pump to replicate the success of the group stage, England will counter.
But both teams will know that on Sunday, at the home of cricket, not only do they have a chance to lift a trophy, but they will be a part of something bigger than them. And the team that can best handle the sense of occasion will emerge triumphant.
It’s impossible that a player won’t be awed by walking through that Lord’s pavilion, the large portrait of Sir Viv Richards welcoming you at the staircase, the honours boards in the dressing room, the players’ balcony looking onto a slope that, at 2.5m from its highest to lowest point, seems to warp perspective.
This isn’t like their male colleagues playing at Lord’s. Only half of both squads have ever played at the ground, which has hosted just 14 women’s ODIs (the most recent one between India and England in 2014 was washed out). Even England’s women’s domestic sides play and practise on the Nursery ground. The last time a Women’s World Cup final was hosted here, back in 1993, England won playing in skirts.
Some of that 1993 squad, as well as those associated with the victorious 1973 batch will be in attendance. England has never lost a World Cup at home, and given a chance to live its dream, will want that stat to be encouragement rather than a burden.
Then there’s the 26,500 people expected to be in attendance on Sunday. This is not the most for a Women’s World Cup Final – that record belongs to Eden Gardens in India back in 1997 when around 70,000 people watched Australia defeat New Zealand. But the sell-out crowd is the most since ICC took over the tournament and the most tickets sold. Two of the members’ stands have also been opened to the public.
As Hartley also pointed out, she’s never played for crowds bigger than the 4000-odd that watched England beat Australia earlier in this tournament.
With unprecedented interest in the tournament – the global TV audience is more than 50 million – having the host nation and the most cricket crazy nation battle it out while playing positive, entertaining cricket is the best advertisement for the women’s game. Young girls and boys have already been inspired to pursue cricket, and Mithali Raj, the Indian captain, reiterated her call for a women’s IPL on the eve of the game.
Of course, being role models is not what the teams will be thinking about on Sunday. England is eager for payback after opening its campaign with a loss to India, its only defeat of the tournament. England want to be able to say it has beaten every team in the world.
India marched to the finals with emphatic performances in must-win games against former champions New Zealand and Australia. Harmanpreet’s 171 not out off 115 to bat Australia out of the semi-final was one of the greatest innings of all time. India’s confidence is soaring.
Harmanpreet’s availability though, is the biggest concern for India. She didn’t take the field in India’s bowling innings after her special knock against Australia, but it was understood that it was an issue of dehydration and cramps. However, she appeared to have strained her shoulder at nets, and got it iced; she didn’t bat again. Raj insisted it was just precaution to not aggravate niggles and she would play.
One bit of good news for India: Shikha Pandey who suffered an ankle strain against Australia, bowled in the nets.
Strikingly, both teams have been liberated by a positive approach and look to be enjoying a chance to express themselves. They have come to the final from thrilling semifinals that have tested skills, resolve and cool-headedness. The respective campaigns have been built around Tammy Beaumont and Mithali Raj, who are in the race for top scorer of the tournament. But equally, others have stood up to make match-winning contributions. That the last time this pitch was used was in Engand's ODI against Ireland in May will help them.
A lot will depend on the bowlers. Katherine Brunt is the one deciding who’s bowling from which end, the England bowlers joked. Jhulan Goswami, who’s gotten better since the tournament has gone on, spent the morning practising bowling on the centre pitch to get adjusted to the slope.
Rain spoilt England’s training session. More is forecast for Sunday afternoon, but given what’s at stake, the team winning the toss is likely to still bat first and bank on scoreboard pressure.
What they said:
Mithali Raj: “It all boils down to how well we face pressure situations. There might be times when one of us is up in certain overs. How we continue from there is important. Everyone has nerves, no matter how many matches we play. This bunch of players are playing the finals for the first time, but I see no fear in them. It’s completely different to 2005 when we were overawed by the occasion.”
Heather Knight: “We’re going to go with the same team, subject to the weather. It’s been working for us and no niggles around. We’ve improved as the tournament has gone on. With the loss against India in the first game, it’s nice that on full circle we get a chance to play them again. The pleasing thing is the number of people that have stood up. From No. 1 to 11, there’s been people that have put their hands up in different times and as a captain it’s lovely to see.”
England: Heather Knight (capt), Tammy Beaumont, Katherine Brunt, Georgia Elwiss, Jenny Gunn, Alex Hartley, Danielle Hazell, Beth Langston, Laura Marsh, Natalie Sciver, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor (wk), Fran Wilson, Lauren Winfield and Danielle Wyatt.
India: Mithali Raj (capt), Ekta Bisht, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Jhulan Goswami, Mansi Joshi, Harmanpreet Kaur, Veda Krishnamurthy, Smriti Mandhana, Mona Meshram, Shikha Pandey, Poonam Yadav, Nuzhat Parween, Poonam Raut, Deepti Sharma and Sushma Verma (wk).