India Women pulled off a sensational heist in Bristol on Saturday managing to draw the one-off Test against the more fancied hosts England with all odds stacked against them. It was a collective performance by the Mithali Raj-led side inspired by four outstanding performances – by Shafali Verma, Smriti Mandhana, Taniya Bhatia and Sneh Rana.
India were always playing catch-up once England posted a mammoth 396 for 9 in the first innings. But the record-breaking opening-wicket stand of 167 between Shafali Verma and Smriti Mandhana brought them right back into the contest. The counter-attack led by the 17-year old Verma took England by surprise and although the middle and lower-order collapsed and India were bowled out for a mere 231, it inspired the team and gave them the confidence to fight in the remainder of the match.
And that is what they exactly did!
Verma did not get bogged down by the occasion or show any nerves in what was her first Test appearance for India and counter-attacked in the second innings too despite India being under severe pressure having been asked to follow-on. She smashed 63 off 83 deliveries as India ate into the deficit more quickly than was anticipated. Verma’s brilliant knock affected the outcome of the match in two major ways. Firstly, runs were at a premium in the third innings as that would mean that England would need to score that many chasing on Day 4. If India had gone about the traditional way then the home team would have still been in the game as the target (if India were bowled out) would still have been manageable.
Secondly, Verma’s knock had a ripple effect on the team. It inspired the other batters to raise their game and produce match-defining performances of a lifetime.
Deepti Sharma, also on Test debut, and Punam Raut put together 72 for the third-wicket (after the dismissal of Verma) and more crucially consumed almost a session of play between them (around 28 overs). However Sharma’s departure triggered a massive collapse and India were reduced from 171 for 2 to 199 for 7 losing five big wickets in quick succession for just 28 runs.
There were still around 50 overs left on the final day and India’s lead was just 34. England were on the top and victory was in sight. Only a miracle could save India in the match.
And that is what exactly happened in Bristol on the 19th of June.
Numbers 8,9 and 10 came up with extraordinary performances – much like what the men’s team did in Australia at the SCG earlier in the year – and saved the day and the match for India. Bowling all-rounder, Sneh Rana, another Indian player on debut, had picked 4 wickets in the England innings but little did the world know what was in store when she came out to bat in the second innings. Rana combined with Shikha Pandey and the pair added 41 for the eighth wicket in just under 17 overs. They negotiated everything the England bowlers threw at them, even the new ball. While there were many anxious moments the duo never gave up and slowly but surely ate away into the lead.
The partnership survived for 100 deliveries before Pandey was dismissed. India were still in trouble as the lead was just 75 with only two wickets in hand and over 30 overs to be bowled. But Rana was determined to take the fight to the England bowlers and not cave in. In wicket-keeper Taniya Bhatia she found the able partner and the pair put together one of the greatest partnerships in the history of women’s Test cricket for India.
There were close-in fielders at slip, second slip, silly point but that did not faze Rana and Bhatia. The Dehradun born Rana grew in confidence and got a number of boundaries away post Tea recording her fifty off 91 deliveries. Lucky was on her side but then as the old adage says ‘Fortune Favours The Brave’. The pair soon registered the 50-partnership and looked determined not to throw it away for India. The match was slipping away out of the hands of the home team but they had no answers to the stunning ninth-wicket partnership for India – Heather Knight threw everything at her disposal at the two Indian batters – from Brunt to Ecclestone to Shrubsole to Cross to Sciver to herself – but to no avail.
Rana and Bhatia pulled off the impossible for India. They put together a match-saving unbeaten 104-run stand for the ninth wicket – it was the second-highest ninth-wicket stand ever in women’s Tests. More significantly, they had batted together for a little over 30 overs and against all odds taken India out of a deep hole and pulled off an incredible heist against the hosts.
Rana remained unbeaten on a magnificent 80 off 154 deliveries – she hammered 14 boundaries but more crucially batted for 195 minutes for her once-in-a-lifetime performance. Her score was third-highest while batting at No. 8 or a lower position for any women’s player on debut.
Bhatia too played the role of the supporting act to perfection. Her innings off 44 of 88 deliveries was earmarked with fluent cuts and drives and she displayed a brilliant technique in the way she handled England’s best bowler of the innings, Ecclestone.
The duo had together showed remarkable character, temperament, determination and skill and snatched a draw, which was as sweet as any win, from the jaws of defeat and scripted a new chapter in the history of women’s cricket for India.
There was Kolkata 2001, SCG 2021 and now there is Bristol 2021 too.