Mithali Raj's eyes were fixed on the action in the middle, with as much concentration as she would before facing a delivery. She had been run out in the 13th over of the chase but hadn't taken her pads off till the fall of Deepti Sharma's wicket. There were varied emotions on that bench, at times clasping onto her lockets, praying for some divine help, murmuring all her prayers she knew, but none of that seemed to work on the eventful day. But when those pads came off, there seemed to be a strange smile on her face - one of acceptance, one of pride, one where she started to make peace with the fact that she won't be able to lay her hands on the coveted trophy.
"Obviously, I wouldn't be happy, but as a captain I'm very proud," Raj says. Raj has been at the heart of Indian women's cricket since times immemorial and in one of her media interactions before the grand final, she had revealed how this was different to the 2005 final in Centurion. Nobody would be able to measure the miles clocked since then, better. Along with Jhulan Goswami, Raj has hand-held these young girls through their journeys on the cricket field, mollycoddled too, and done everything Mithu di was expected to.
"I've seen the changes the girls have made to their personal games. As a team we have regrouped to where the team is today. How the team has come along, it's a great effort by everybody. Yes, it's probably the last World Cup for me and Jhulan, but I'm very happy that the team doesn't look weak. They are still very confident, they are a team that every other team will be watching out for in the coming years."
'Coming years' had been repeated time and again by Raj, but the phrase never lost its importance even once. To reach the final when not many outside their changing rooms would have given them a chance, is in itself a story that the grandchildren would grow up to. And thus when Raj says that the women's game in the country has got its biggest fillip and would be looked at differently, she means it with a lot of pride and confidence. In the Harmanpreet Kaurs, Smriti Mandhanas and Deepti Sharmas, India can build their new core. In them, India can see many trophies of the future.
"We started off well. We had couple of matches where we were defeated, and then coming back stronger. Unlike in 2005, where the finals was one-sided, it went on till the end. The girls gave it all, I know. It happens with the best of (the) best players and teams, but I'm sure the girls gave their best to make it happen. It didn't, but we can always take the positives and move on," the skipper observed.
India were under the pump when Sarah Taylor and Natalie Sciver were in that 81-run fourth-wicket stand. It took a seasoned Goswami, who much like Raj was playing her last World Cup, to separate the duo. "There were phases when we thought we were back in the game because that partnership between Sarah Taylor and Sciver, to break that was crucial. The spell she (Jhulan) bowled had given us a chance to hold England. We decided to put them to below 250 and the bowlers have done well," Raj said while lauding the efforts of her old-time mate.
"Yes I have, I have seen a lot of brilliant spells from her. She hadn't started the tournament well, but has definitely ended it on a high. That's the experience that really counts in these matches. She's a player India should celebrate."
While Raj felt that the bowlers did their job, it was the batting, more so the lower-order, that failed to rise to the occasion. "Katherine Brunt's 34 was very crucial for them. At one stage, they were 6-7 wickets down, so her runs, and whoever came in, extended their total from 180 to 225, which we could not do. We were in a similar situation at one point, we were probably eight runs ahead of them, wickets in hand, and yet the result isn't in our favour. I guess it is important that the lower middle order needs to contribute," Raj remarked.
India lost their last seven wickets for just 28 runs, that after two strong partnerships between Punam Raut and Harmanpreet, and the one with Veda Krishnamurthy right after that. The inexperience came to the fore when some needless shots, nervous yes and nos started showing up, far too often in crunch situations.
"I think specially the lower middle-order needs to contribute at some point. That is something that has been a concern for the Indian team at some point. When it comes to these situations, they don't really contribute much. It's important now, its like the fielding department, batting is something everybody needs to do, no matter which position they go," Raj observed.
"It's a learning experience for all the girls, and I'm sure they will use this experience when they are in a similar situation in future. It's about experience and how they use it during that situation is very important, which probably the girls weren't experienced enough to do it. It's just a matter of thinking about calculations, and keeping your cool in the middle," she added further.
Punam Raut's cool-as-a-cucumber temperament was best showcased through her stodgy 86, and never in her partnerships with power-hitters Harmanpreet and Krishnamurthy, she looked intimidated. There were cramps too, and when those legs didn't push her as quickly as she wanted them, or when those arms felt more numb than ever, her steel kept her going. Harmanpreet and Krishnamurthy rose to the occasion again, with their timely knocks. A few more minutes from any of the three would have ended up in a different result, but it wasn't to be. "I would like to add that it was a very brave innings from Punam Raut, in a situation like that. The partnership between her and Harman and Veda, very important. They really built the innings," Raj noted.
Raj spoke highly of the Indian cricket board and credited them for the support they had provided to the girls. "BCCI have been very supportive. Every official has spoken very encouragingly. The response from the public back home is very positive. I'm sure BCCI is very proud of the team as I am. When we lost the warm-up games, nobody gave us a chance that we would make it in the semifinals, or after losing against South Africa and Australia. A team like that has come to the finals and given a good fight to the host team, I'm sure everybody should be proud of it."
The Indian skipper also called for more fixtures in the days to come. While the ICC Championship is due to start soon, Raj felt there was a need for more exposure that her side needed. "We need to have more matches in domestic circuit. The more matches you play the better the players get.. should give them that experience because the girls could perform here because of the West Indies home series, the qualifiers in Sri Lanka, we went to South Africa for the quadrilateral, these were the build ups to the tournament which gave them confidence. They should play more games."
While Tushar Arothe was named the coach just two months ahead of the mega event, to replace Purnima Rau in what seemed troubled times for the game, skipper Raj revealed she had no reasons why she wouldn't be happy about the fact that he's been the coach. "He's worked hard with the girls. He's got a different approach. Since he's played in England, he's been very helpful to the bowlers as well as batters. He's been positive, the whole support staff have been very positive, looking after the girls."
While a trophy win would have served as the ultimate potion to the women's game, Raj believes that the bright future this team promises holds the women's game in great stead. When a 19-year-old Deepti was trusted with the task of finishing the job for India, with only two wickets remaining, it only added substance to the growing standards of the sport. In the end, like Harsha Bhogle mentioned, it was more nerves than skill that got England over the line. Raj doesn't think too differently.
"Everybody was very nervous and that resulted in our defeat. I think the girls are sad, because they gave it all. It is but natural. It will take time, but these girls have set the platform for coming generations in India to look up to them. They've opened a lot of channels for women's cricket. They should be really proud of themselves for doing that."
They should be. PROUD.