The first time Mithali Raj played in a World Cup final, a dozen years ago, she is pretty sure almost no-one was watching.
“Hardly anybody knew India have qualified for the finals. They were all too involved in men’s cricket. The match wasn’t even televised,” she remembered.
The second time, now, she is quite sure everyone or at least everyone one who wants to and can, will be watching. “This World Cup is completely different to the other editions because it has given scope for the players to increase their profile as well as promote women’s cricket on a larger scale. And it’s also an opportunity for the Indian team to make it big in India,” she said. “Everybody will be glued to the television on Sunday. If we can pull it off, there will be nothing like it. It will help the future of women’s cricket. All the women cricketers back in India who even think of making it a career will always be thankful to this bunch of players for giving it that platform.”
Raj started this campaign, her fifth, on the front foot. Asked at the tournament’s opening dinner who her favourite male cricketer was, with the caveat that she had to choose from either the Indian or Pakistani team, she shot back in response.
“Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? I have always been asked who’s your favourite cricketer but you should ask them who their favourite female cricketer is.”
She went on to explain that India’s female cricketers still have “a lot of catch-up to do in terms of recognition” compared to their male counterparts. Yes, even India, where the sport is often described as a religion with millions of disciples, struggle to put their female cricketers at centre-stage. This World Cup should change that. It has already started to.
The opening match between England and India in Derby was sold out. There were 3,100 people in attendance. A week later, the match between India and Pakistan was sold out too. And three weeks after that, the final, also between England and India, at Lord’s is also sold out. There will be 26,500 people in attendance. That’s eight-and-a-half times the number that turned out for the first match and it’s not just a reflection of the difference in capacity between the two grounds. It is an indicator of interest.
Overall, this World Cup has reported an 80% bigger audience than the previous edition with a global reach of more than 50 million people. The Indian market has been a key contributor to those numbers. Their television audience has increased by 47% since 2013 and India will be the only team to play in front of all the three full houses the tournament has had.
For the first time in their careers, the Indian women understand what it’s like to be superstars. Raj said pre-tournament that the women had yet to enjoy hordes of fans or experience the hype their men have come to regard as normal. Sunday will change that and she hopes that her team understand the significance attached to being part of it. “The girls need to enjoy being in an atmosphere like that. Each one is lucky to be part of a final at Lord’s. Every cricketer dreams of playing at Lord’s because of the history. This is a big achievement,” she said.
Of course the players aren’t the only lucky ones. Those who turn up at Lord’s, or turn on their televisions, will be treated to some of the greats of the game. In Raj and Jhulan Goswami, they will see the record-holders for the most runs and most wickets in women’s ODIs, and they may well be seeing them for the last time. Raj has confirmed this will be her last World Cup and Goswami, who is the same age, is likely to be in the same position.
Between them, they have put their team on the map. Now they want the younger crop to take them further, the likes of 19-year-old Deepti Sharma, 21-year old Smriti Mandhana and 24-year old Veda Krishnamurthy. All three have turned in notable performances at this tournament already – Deepti a three-for against England, Mandhana 90 against England and an unbeaten century against West Indies and Krishnamurthy a quick fifty against New Zealand.
The sharing of responsibility is what has pleased Raj most about India as well as her team’s ability to dig themselves out of holes and she wants them to combine the two in the final. She’s asked her openers to try to post more runs upfront than they did against Australia, where India were 35 for 2 inside the first 10 overs. “Ideally, I want the openers to have more runs,” Raj said.
And if they don’t? “It’s okay as long as the team looks very confident. If you want to be the best side in the world, you need to know how to make comebacks I can say the team knows how to make a comeback.”
India had to claw their way back after successive defeats to South Africa and Australia, which put them in what was effectively a quarter-final against New Zealand. They defended 265 by routing New Zealand for 79. At this tournament, they have also defended lower scores: 169 against Pakistan and 232 against Sri Lanka, but the magic number has been 281.
That was their top-score, the score they got in their first match against England and the score they posted in the semi-final against Australia. Both times it proved enough. Enough by 35 runs the first time and 36 the second. Both times it also provided two of the competition’s more entertaining games, which is what Raj wants her team to showcase when she knows everyone is watching.
“It’s important when matches are televised to showcase a very good brand of cricket. That’s how we attract more people to come and watch woman’s games.”
And from Sunday, there may be many many more watching the Indian team.