Harmanpreet Kaur: Wisden Cricketer of the Year – The Almanack
The Five Cricketers of the Year represent a tradition that dates back in Wisden to 1889, making this the oldest individual award in cricket. In 2023, Harmanpreet Kaur was one of the five.
During the team huddle before the third one-day international against England at Lord’s, Harmanpreet Kaur was in tears. Jhulan Goswami, the leading wicket-taker in women’s ODIs, was playing her last game for India. Harmanpreet, who had made her debut under Goswami’s captaincy at the 2009 World Cup in Australia, now enveloped her fast bowler in a bear hug. The moment matched the theme of the series: the one-dayers might have been a last dance for the beloved Goswami, but Harmanpreet chose the music, handed out the sequinned costumes and – ta-da! – took a bow with the perfect 3-0 scoreline.
She finished the series as the leading scorer, her 221 runs for once out including an emphatic unbeaten 143 off 111 balls at Canterbury. In her second tour as full-time, all-format captain, she had led India to their first ODI series win in England since 1999, having already secured a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. She set the template for her country’s post-Mithali Raj era, gave Goswami the farewell she deserved and, in a show of hard-nosed leadership, coolly navigated l’affaire Mankad at the home of cricket.
When Deepti Sharma ran out Charlie Dean at the non-striker’s end to give India a 16-run win – triggering apoplexy and culture wars – Harmanpreet was incredulous at being asked to defend the dismissal during the interview on the outfield. “I thought you will ask about all the ten wickets, which were not easy to take,” she said. Pressed on Sharma’s deed, she replied: “I don’t think she has done something wrong… I’m actually very happy.”
Harmanpreet uses all the stock phrases: she wants good/positive/aggressive cricket, played with freedom/self-belief/intent. But you take them seriously because of how she marries technique and game sense with entertaining boundary-striking. She is India’s first proponent of modern power batting in women’s cricket.
At Canterbury, she took her time to get in, as she often does: the first fifty used up 64 balls, but the second 36. She then needed just 11 for the final 43 runs, including a six in each of the last three overs, which yielded 62 as she showed off her signature slog-sweep. In a year when she worked on her lofted shots, she was emphatic over cover. And when she made room outside leg, she scythed the ball over extra. India’s 333-5 was their second-highest total, and enough to decide the series.
Her two fifties in the inaugural women’s cricket competition at the Commonwealth Games had been against the mighty Australians. She made 52 off 34 balls in the group game, and in the final top-scored again, with 65 off 43, full of sweeps. With India chasing 162, she had come in at 22-2, and helped reduce the equation to 44 off 34, with eight wickets still in hand. But two fell quickly and, when she succumbed to an ill-judged lap, India’s challenge withered away. Even so, it was a notable chapter in the country’s sporting history.
HARMANPREET KAUR BHULLAR was born in Moga, a rural area of Punjab, on March 8, 1989. The story goes that her father, a clerk at a district court, bought a shirt for his newborn that said “Good batting” – under a figure of a boy. When Harmanpreet was in her early teens, Kamaldheesh Singh Sodhi, a local cricket enthusiast, saw the seeds of this good batting, and decided to nurture her skill. He and his son Yadwinder set up an academy, where the girl who wanted to bat like Virender Sehwag was encouraged to hit the ball beyond the trees in a corner of the ground. A few years later, when the national selectors were looking for oomph in India’s middle order, she fitted the bill. In her second international innings, at the 2009 World Cup, she made an unbeaten 19 off eight balls from No.7 to help upset Australia.
Eight years later, the Australians were left dumbfounded by another ‘Harry’ special, this time on prime-time TV. Drawing from her experience of being the first Indian at the Women’s Big Bash League, she smashed 171 not out off 115 balls at Derby to catapult her side into the World Cup final at Lord’s – and women’s cricket into a nation’s consciousness.
Harmanpreet is a big-match player, and there were lulls between the blockbuster knocks. But in 2022 she found a vital missing element: consistency, scoring two of her five ODI hundreds, plus five fifties, and averaging 58. What changed? Better mental health, and more responsibility.
Just as significant as what she did in England was what she didn’t do: appear in The Hundred. “We are very open about players taking breaks when there is mental fatigue,” she said. For her, this self-care philosophy had taken root at the start of the year, which began with 45 runs in four innings against New Zealand, amid calls for her to be dropped. “I was going into my shell,” she said back then. “Nothing is more painful than getting on the field, and you’re trying to give your 200%, and unfortunately you’re not able to deliver.”
But conversations with the team psychologist sparked a turnaround, and she soon rose to the occasion at the World Cup. The trademark swing of the bat returned, producing a tournament average of 53 and a strike-rate of 91. Once Raj retired in June, Harmanpreet thrived under the responsibility of being “always in the game”. Her first six ODIs in charge brought her 340 runs at 113. Throw in five previous matches as stand-in leader, between April 2013 and March 2018, and her record as captain by the end of 2022 was 585 at 97. She had taken over the T20 job at the end of 2016, and led India to the final of the 2020 World Cup at Melbourne. The captaincy itself is a work in progress: while the focus is on intent, fitness and fielding, she isn’t yet as intuitive as her predecessor. Her choice of XI can be contentious, and an inflexibility in reacting to opposition plans has cost India in crunch situations.
Yet, during the English summer, there was no question: this was Harmanpreet’s team, and the transition of power was complete. At a time when women’s cricket has more money and marketability, and demands more attention, she is its face in India. Going into the inaugural Women’s Premier League after her best year in international cricket, her star seemed likely to go in only one direction.
The Five Cricketers of the Year are picked by the editor, and the selection is based, primarily but not exclusively, on the players’ influence on the previous English season. No one can be chosen more than once.