In the past year, Harmanpreet Kaur has ensured her career will be remembered for more than just the seminal innings at the 2017 World Cup semi-final.
“She was my favourite player, but you can’t survive on that one innings.” Diana Edulji, the former India captain and administrator, had been critical at the start of 2022 when Harmanpreet Kaur was going through a particularly wan patch for her country.
“That one innings” was, of course, Kaur’s groundbreaking 171 not out against Australia in the semi-final of the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup 2017.
And what a knock it was. An innings of such ferocity and improbability that it struck a blow for women’s cricket the reverberations of which are still being felt as the sport touches new highs today.
But that one innings has also defined Kaur since and set expectations for personal performances that her career until then did not always justify.
It has only been in the past year or so that she has been able to shed its baggage. For someone who made her debut in 2009, she’s added more to her career highlight reel in the past year than in all the years before. A Wisden honour, announced this week, is the latest recognition of this next phase.
With every telling of the Harmanpreet story, the legend of 171 not out becomes stronger and inspires more awe.
About how she was battling injury that day. About how the time spent at the physio and the hectic rain-hit morning meant she missed out on eating anything but energy bars and oily samosas brought by some friends of the team, and that translated into cramps during the innings.
The coach wanted her to get ready to open the batting if the match was shortened to 20 overs, something she had almost never done.
She wasn’t even playing with her own bat that day. She had borrowed Smriti Mandhana’s.
She was facing one of the most successful sides in the world. It was an innings that couldn’t and shouldn’t have been, but it was, and it was glorious.
But here’s the rest of her story. Before that one innings, her reputation as a big-hitter did not always translate into consistent numbers. Her ODI average was 33.38 in 76 matches, with only two hundreds – middling figures for a senior batter and captain-in-waiting in the team. In the four years after that World Cup, even allowing for the pandemic interruption, she crossed fifty only twice in the format. In T20Is, a sparkling World Cup hundred was buttressed by 20s and 30s that gave her an average of 28.52 and established her inconsistency.
“I know people talk more about my 171-knock and that is a standard I have set for myself,” she said in the face of criticism last year. “Maybe that’s why my small knocks of 30-40 runs, which are crucial to the team, are not given importance.”
But 2022 changed everything. Incidentally, not long after Edulji’s utterances.
Finally, those 30s and 40s became 50s and 70s and 100s. Since the start of last year, she has added two more ODI centuries to her tally and made one-third of her career fifties; she averages 58 in ODIs since the start of the year, and 34.13 in T20Is.
Apart from all the runs, in this second phase of her career, she has the all-format captaincy, a WPL trophy and a Commonwealth silver medal. And for some of those performances, Kaur was named one of five Wisden Almanack 2023 Cricketers of the Year this week.
The honour, reserved for standout performances over the English summer, recognised her contribution in India’s first ODI series win in England since 1999 as well as taking them oh-so-close to a Commonwealth Games gold.
The highlight of her tour of England, and a big reason for the Wisden recognition, was the 143 not out at Canterbury. All through that knock too, the friendly ghost of unbeaten 171 lingered: could she unleash the “Harmonster”, as the headline writers and social media pundits love to call it, again? Watching the innings, you’d know she did. Just as she accomplished that day in Derby, she eased through the gears. If her first fifty came in 64 balls, she took just 36 for the next; the last 43 runs needed just 11 balls, and included three sixes.
This knock didn’t change women’s cricket like the 171* did. Nor did her half-centuries in crucial knock-out games for India in recent world tournaments. But they did help move the needle and, significantly, did change how we see Harmanpreet the batter.
When new audiences tuned in to the Women’s Premier League in March, they were treated to this Harmanpreet on the very first day. She smashed a 22-ball fifty, before finishing on 65 off 30 balls.
The year has been a celebration of her skill and her power. That she could bat like that was no surprise – she was always a big game player. But that such performances are no longer rare has brought a new element to the story we tell about her.