Mithali Raj and Smriti Mandhana, both world top-10 ODI batters, are at the crease. Mithali, the India captain, drives an in-swinger from Anya Shrubsole low to point, and the ball dips in front of Sophia Dunkley as she throws herself forward for the catch. The review captures Dunkley’s fingers beneath the ball: “I’m satisfied,” pronounces the third umpire. A wave of joy breaks over the gathered England fielders. They’re satisfied, too.
Was this the moment England’s women turned their hitherto disastrous World Cup campaign around? Or was it in Shrubsole’s next over, when Kate Cross ran from cover to mid-off and hit the stumps, as Deepti Sharma tried to get off the mark? Was it, perhaps, when Charlie Dean took a wicket with the first ball of only her second one-day game, and another three deliveries later, to leave India 61 for five?
Or was the magic lever lifted in England’s own innings, when a ball from Jhulan Goswami beat the bottom of Nat Sciver’s bat and clunked into the stumps without, miraculously, breaking the wicket? England were 12 for two at that point, chasing 135, both women at the crease yet to score. If the bails had fallen, and England’s batting had tumbled in turn (as has happened so frequently this winter), their World Cup would have been over in record-short time. Four games, four losses: thanks for coming, don’t forget to sanitise your hands on the flight home.
Instead Sciver put on 65 runs with Heather Knight, England beat India, and one of the most dramatic comebacks in cricketing history had begun. No team, male or female, have won a World Cup after losing all three of their opening games, but on Sunday, Knight’s women have that chance.
Let’s rewind, gently unspool the tangled tape of this unlikely narrative. The reigning champions came into this tournament on the back of an Ashes defeat that included spirit-sapping losses in all three ODIs. Their opening performance wasn’t, however, without merit: against fellow finalists Australia, they got within 12 runs of 311, and compiled the second-highest chasing score in any women’s ODI. It took a sensational caught and bowled from Jess Jonassen to bring down Sciver and Katherine Brunt’s dash for the line.
Defeat by West Indies finished in a similar tail-end scrap, but was far less impressive: England might have been chasing a far more modest total than 226 if they hadn’t squandered six relatively simple chances in the field. And when they missed another three catches (plus a missed stumping) off South Africa they quite literally let go of the reins. Seventh out of eight in the group stage table, they had ceded control over their own destiny in the tournament; even if they won all their remaining games, only the flukery of other results could secure them a route to the semi-finals. Lisa Keightley looked like a woman quietly drafting her resignation speech.
How to explain what happened next? It’s inevitable that our minds turn to some of the most famous turnarounds in the men’s World Cup, be it Pakistan’s cornered tigers of ’92 or Australia’s late charge in 1999. England’s own staggering campaign in 2019 provides the most recent template, of course, and it could be that watching Eoin Morgan’s men gave England the belief, here, that what they were attempting – finessing four must-win games – was possible.
One day, perhaps, we will hear apocryphal tales of the team meeting that cleared the air and lit the fire, such as Australia’s famous Pizza Hut session in ’99, or Ben Stokes rallying the troops after their third group-stage defeat, at Lord’s. For now, England’s climb-back remains an organic and unshowy one, born of Knight’s keep-calm-and-carry-on leadership and a generous glug of good luck. Their continual fortune with the coin toss, for instance, meant they could choose to field first and push for the quick chases that would improve their net run rate.
But the every-game-a-final approach has made for some enduring moments already. Possibly the most memorable was the unbearable tension as England nearly went out of the tournament for a second time against New Zealand, Fran Mackay running through England’s lower order just as they seemed to be coasting to victory. It was impossible to watch Brunt’s bat sliding hopelessly short of the crease after her full body dive without noting the visual echoes of Martin Guptill run out by Jason Roy at Lord’s.
There has been the relief of seeing Brunt return to form against Pakistan, and the joy of Danni Wyatt’s sudden blooming at the top of the order, like the wilting petunia that just needed moving to the right part of the garden. Even more pleasurable has been the sight of Sophie Ecclestone’s scything spin, clearing England’s passage to the final and culminating in that semi-final haul of six for 36.
Knight believes all this triumph over adversity has honed the perfect knockout mentality for a World Cup final; in truth, that peak performance against South Africa on Thursday carries the echo of England’s barnstorming semi against New Zealand in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and it’s more probable than possible that Australia will prove too much. But it’s been a compelling journey – part seesaw, part catapult – and those who were carried along will always be grateful for the ride.