Aboriginal star Gardner, funky-socks lover Grace Harris help Australia win a thriller despite Harmanpreet and Renuka’s heroics

Mario Nicoliello, a writer from Brescia near Milan, Italy, had never watched a cricket match in his life, prior to Friday. The sports and culture writer for the Avvenire, an Italian daily affiliated with the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, was in Birmingham for three days to take in the spectacle of the Commonwealth Games – an event he was a complete stranger to, until recently.

On Friday, after a quick primer offered to him – “it’s just like baseball” though the Italian knew of baseball cursorily too – by helpful cricket writers at Edgbaston on the sport, Nicoliello found his first connect with cricket. “Six” the realization dawned on his relieved face which had cracked one bit-part of the mysterious sport, when India’s Harmanpreet Kaur stepped out to Aussie Jess Jonassen bowling over the wicket, and hit her into the stands – a six on any ground, never mind where the boundary ropes were. The sailing meteor of a ball that went into the crowd had Nicoliello mimicking the umpire in raising both hands as a signal, punch pleased about his first lesson in the sport.

Women’s T20 debuting at the Commonwealth Games, and aspiring for Olympics at Brisbane 2032, if not LA 2028, had found its first convert from someone who’d been an absolute ignoramus, and Nicoliello couldn’t believe a game “so slow had so many people enchanted watching while sitting in the sun.”

Despite losing by 3 wickets eventually to the world champ Aussies, India would make a match of it, after an under-par 154, though Harmanpreet offered the most engaging passages of play, that had even the Italian imbibing the masterclass in boundary-hitting.  The Indian captain boggled those steeped in Championship winning-Aussies too frankly, manipulating their fields so bossily, that at one point they had two deep square legs – one fine, the other grazing deep mid-wicket, plus a long on, and she still found an angle for her eight boundaries.

It started after Shafali Varma exited, and Harman till then biding her time, began a cat-and-mouse game with the Australians, clearly her favourite opponents. It’s pointless trying to get over her knock of 171 from 2017 – not when the memories of it can spawn a 34 ball-52 sequel like on Friday. Harman would sweep the crowds off their feet with her late charge, but essentially sweep the Aussies into confounding helplessness as none of their field plans could contain her perfect striking into gaps.

The Aussie legspinner Alana King would bowl flat and wide outside offstump, and she would manage to scoop her one delivery, then paddle sweep her the very next just as the offside was being bolstered. This was Harman pushing India to a fighting, even if inadequate total of 154, as the quick outfield meant this was easily a 180 pitch given the Aussies, who bat deep – to No 11 if their claims are to be believed. But with her half century, the Indian captain had set it up nicely for her quicks.

Renuka Singh Thakur, the team’s only inswing bowler – with her skiddy prodding action, moving the ball off the wicket and in the air, kept India in the game through her spell – even threatening to upset the mighty Aussies as India started off sensationally, on the back of her 4-18. At 110/7, there was a definite buzz around the ground about a possible shocker to kick off the Games, but India were a quick short in pace-friendly conditions, and Australia would canter after a definite stutter, with Ash Gardener and Grace Harris seeing them home.

The T20 format offered a tasty last-over bait on which the Games can hook their further hard-sell as cricket sidles into multi-sport mainstreaming on the back of being watchable, sellable and most importantly a pull for crowds.

Charming Aussies

Unlike the men’s team history, the world-beating Australian women have been impeccable ambassadors for their country and sport, setting high standards of aggressive cricket, yet mightily likeable off it. Ashleigh Gardener, who anchored the stammering chase, comes from the indigenous community of Sydney, and has led the conversation about reconciliation and racist reckonings in Australian sport. A multi-faceted woman from the First Nations People, she helped design the indigenous playing jerseys of the national women’s team, and brought the long-standing issues front and centre since she first won Player of the Series.

Trying to pull Australia out of the ditch they had dug themselves into, Gardner had the sensational Grace Harris (37 off 20), sneaking into the stacked T20 side after a long time, for company. Harris walked in with a stat swirling in her head that on an average, winning teams in WT20 lost 7 wickets, so she reckoned even at 4-34, the chase was on track. She would chuckle later that she was glad the top order had faced Renuka Thakur’s four-over-straight spell, and she was free to come down the order and do her thing – with five boundaries and two sixes.

The 28-year-old boisterous star, later spoke of mixing with Aussie sporting royalty at the CWG. “We’ve always watched swimmers from back home win big medals. It was good to meet them and be at the same Games, and also be part of history’s first T20 side at the Commonwealth Games. “Not many would be able to say that,” she said.

Known for her funky socks – against India it was ‘boring same yellow ones’ albeit with pictures of her Dalmatian Dorry. She’s carrying another red pair with burgers and fries that she’ll wear on a day she feels comfortable to wear the radical ones. Asked which Olympic sport she loved the most, she would quip: “Shooting. I know someone who’s a medallist and eats a whole tub of icecream while doing that! That’s the sport I want to play, winning medals!”

Cricket, though, is banking on its bonafide crowd-pulling abilities, and the first women’s game provided plenty of drama at Edgbaston. Four gents in their 60s from Jamnagar, now settled in Birmingham for over 25 years, dropped in for ‘a day of some cricket’, walking in for the India-Australia match from their homes not more than 10 minutes from the stadium. Sangan, Khunti, Rupen and Natha Mudvadia have watched cricket at the iconic E for years now, and remembered cheering the teams hoarse when younger, but were keen on piping up support for the Indian women. “We’re pensioners now but we still love our cricket. It’s India vs Australia after all, ofcourse the Indian women have our support,” Mudvadia would say.

For the Italian Nicoliello, it mattered that though T20 was scrunching the much-maligned five-day Tests into 3 hours, the fundamentals of cricket still applied. “It is outstanding that during a game, two batters in the middle play against 11. That’s 2 vs a lot of opponents. It’s glorious to watch that battle,” he said. There’s always something new in cricket for everyone to wake up to.

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