The cricket match we had been waiting for came the day before yesterday at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai. Sure, I was lucky enough to be present at a thriller of a game in South Africa (a little more of that in a while) but the one in Mumbai was the final of the first Women's Premier League, and the question was, could it live up to the billing. Hurrying back to a Johannesburg hotel room from a breathless Supersport Park - the crowd still dizzy from the home team's spectacular run chase against West Indies - I settled in front of the televison for the nub of the matter between Delhi Capitals, led by the Australia captain, Meg Lanning, and Mumbai Indians, led by India's Harmanpreet Kaur.
Nat Sciver-Brunt and Harmanpreet were at the wicket, nervously chipping away at the Delhi total of 131 and meeting mid-pitch for short conversations and little fist-punches, the touchy-feely performance recognition of cricket's modernism.
Lanning was a study of concentration: cool in the deployment of her bowlers and accurate in the positioning of her fielders, each of whose attention and athleticism would likely decide the outcome. These three, alongside Marizanne Kapp, South Africa's totemic allrounder and Lanning's go-to game-breaker, are among the game's greatest players. They fly the flag for nations steeped in the cricket history of men and now telling stories of women who delight and surprise in equal measure.
It was a hard game to call, especially after Alice Capsey whipped off the bails to run-out Harmanpreet, but the suspicion lingered that Sciver-Brunt was not for turning, and therefore Lanning's war was at the other end. What she cannot have reckoned on was Amelia Kerr's brazen counterattack. When it got really tight, Kerr simply thumped a few to various boundaries, and suddenly Sciver-Brunt was paddling the winning runs.
What happened next was riveting. Mumbai Indians swarmed the field and hugged the hell out of each other - of course they did, this was a big deal. But wait, did I see right? The coach, Charlotte Edwards, stayed boundary-side, wiping the fall of tears from her cheeks. Meanwhile, Lanning - as good and tough a cricketer as Edwards - immersed herself among the Mumbai horde to shake every hand, have a squeeze or two herself, and warmly smile her way through the pain of defeat. She's a winner, and this sort of thing doesn't come easy. But the humanity of her actions was rather moving. Lanning saw the big picture for what it was, a canvas on which women's cricket can be painted alongside any of the existing masterpieces.
Australia are the benchmark for women's cricket. Lanning is the best batter, a great pro and superb captain. Not long back she took time away from the game to recharge and rethink. Since returning she has won the T20 World Cup with her hugely professional and widely gifted team. South Africa gave the Aussies a run in the final - a fabulous occasion at Newlands incidentally - but one team was better than the other. The speed at which women's cricket is now moving is astonishing. On the field, the power of shot, speed of bowler and agility of fielder has improved beyond measure, even during the past year or so. Off the field, the players are commanding a heady price at auction; Sciver-Brunt cost the Mumbai franchise about US$ 390,000, and she rewarded the faith.
The trick now will be to take stock. The development of the professional women's game has come from a blank sheet of paper and is all the better for it. But the lines on the paper are filling up fast. Burnout is a very real threat to the globetrotters of the day. Sciver-Brunt was another who took time away from the game in the second part of last year to reboot. The highest compliment one can pay her is to recount that while she was at the crease on Sunday, there was an inevitability about the outcome. Richie Benaud used to say that the key to a run chase was to be there at the end. Sciver-Brunt must have been listening. The party began, and how!
The scene took me back to the first men's IPL final, when Chennai Super Kings were outwitted by Rajasthan Royals. It was Shane Warne triumphant against MS Dhoni and Muthiah Muralidaran; Warne inspiring his misfits and igniting Ravindra Jadeja; Warne investing both emotionally and physically in franchise and tournament. Warne being Warne. Royals swarmed then as Mumbai did on Sunday night, and Dhoni warmly congratulated. It was good between the teams, as if they were all on the same mission - the justification of something new that the players saw as opportunity.
WPL night was ever so slightly different. Yes, it was something new but it was part of a mission that has defined who we are and what we believe to be right. The communal celebrations were the branches of an olive tree that will, metaphorically, live forever. Women's cricket is no longer an idea or even a movement. It is an integral part of cricket life. The Indian franchise-league presence is the final piece of the jigsaw. Lanning instinctively knew it and saw that on this glittering night, in front of a full house, the winner was less relevant than the writing on the wall. She lost with dignity, which has not always been said about sportspeople in this angry age, but which seems to be back in fashion - among cricketers anyway.
The IPL takes its share of the credit, since players who previously only knew one another from opposite sides of the fence now spend long periods of the year living in each other's pockets. As must Brendon McCullum, who convinced his New Zealand players to dumb down the histrionics and see cricket for what it is - not trivial but not life and death either. Such was his impact that the generously spirited reaction to cruel defeat in the 2019 World Cup final by his successor Kane Williamson and the whole team will live long in the memory.
The women have an unfettered sense of joy in their game - an innocence almost - that suggests both unity and an old-fashioned morality. A well-used piece of footage during the later stages of the WPL had Jemimah Rodrigues in the Delhi Capitals dugout leading some of her team mates though an impromptu and wonderfully fluent dance, after which they all fell about with laughter. It was a reminder that we can take ourselves and the game too seriously. Ben Stokes has worked this one out too but applies his conclusions in a rather different way. Part of England's recent success comes from upping the fun factor and lowering expectation.
There was something of the same at Supersport Park early on Sunday evening as West Indians mingled among South Africans after 517 runs had been scored in 38 overs and five balls. In the television preview to the match, I interviewed Johnson Charles, who said he wasn't bothered by arriving the day before the first match and that, anyway, he wasn't the sort of player who studied the pitch and weighed up his options; rather, see ball and hit ball was the message. After which we walked to the middle together and, prophetically, he said we should expect a 245 game on a pitch this good. I can't say I took him seriously. Duh me. He made 118 of them himself, in 46 balls.
The balance between bat and ball is a true essential in the ongoing review of cricket's health. So yes, these matches are heavily loaded in favour of batters, but on other occasions in other places, the ball has its say. Where possible, boundaries should be pushed back for men, whose physical strength has exponentially increased with the quality and amount of wood in the bats. The problem is how easily the mishit flies over not just the infield but the boundary riders too. This is obviously unfair to bowlers and takes much of the fear out of attacking batting, thus making the task of a big hit under pressure easier on the mind. The quality of the bats is a good thing for women, who are now challenging boundaries and frequently hitting amazing shots, giving their natural game of skill and touch another exciting dimension.
The summary of all this is that whenever the critics - and I have been one - bang on about overkill in the short-form space compromising Test cricket, it is easy to forget cricket is in a generally happy place. Aspects of today's game are not for everyone but then nor are aspects of today's life. In a worn cliché it is said that cricket reflects life. This may be so, it may not. But as long as the grounds are full of enthusiastic spectators, the rudiments of technique remain - they form the aesthetic - and the contest goes to the wire, there is nothing to do but celebrate. Lanning had her day in the South African sun on February 26th, when her team won the T20 World Cup against South Africa at Newlands. On Sunday it was the turn of Harmanpreet in Mumbai and Lanning was first to applaud her. How the great world spins…