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Glorious Triple: How Punam Raut and Deepti Sharma forged the greatest opening partnership in ODI cricket

·8-min read

In 'Nostalgia Drive', Anindya Dutta celebrates a significant victory in Indian cricket which occurred in that corresponding month in history.

***

Early May 2017, Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Coach Tushar Arothe had a difficult decision to make. No one was more aware of the lack of opportunities the Indian Women's Cricket team got to play international matches. So his recent appointment to the top job was a big responsibility. "Since I had a stint with the Indian women's team in the past, I knew most of the players. I was aware of how they had performed. They also knew my style of functioning. It was not that I was venturing into completely unknown territory," Arothe told this writer recently.

He knew that the Quadrangular series involving India, Ireland, Zimbabwe and hosts South Africa was crucial to his team's chances at the World Cup that was to follow in England a few weeks on. The confidence the team took away from this tournament would be the key to how they performed on the big stage.

But the matches in South Africa were a golden opportunity not just to prepare for the World Cup. The NWU Sports Village at Potchefstroom where the team was to stay for over three weeks, was self-contained, and given the fragile law and order situation in the country, the squad had no choice but to spend time with each other.

Arothe saw this as an opportunity to mould the players into a team that functioned as one, instead of a disparate group of small cliques. He knew from long experience that this was an endemic problem with squads that don't get to play together often, and was not unique to his wards.

Over the following weeks, seniors were paired with juniors at the gym, relative strangers were forced to sit down together to multiple meals, and after a few days asked to say something about their partners that others wouldn't know. Inhibitions fell away. A team was starting to come together.

The cricketing preparations however looked set to falter right at the outset. Days before the opening match, Smriti Mandhana stepped down from her opening slot because of an injury suffered at the Women's Big Bash League. She was a crucial cog in the wheel, and in her absence, to get the campaign off to a flying start, Arothe had to get the new opening pair right.

To partner Punam Raut, he chose 19-year old Deepti Sharma, a batter with some experience of playing at the top of the order. He was of course acutely aware the left-right combination was always going to make it more difficult for the opposition.

15 May 2017 €" India versus Ireland

By the time India faced Ireland on 15 May, the team was high on confidence having beaten all three of their opponents in previous matches. In each of the three encounters the team had chased down modest totals easily. But Arothe saw two things that needed fixing despite the clean record thus far.

He told me: "The openers were batting too slowly and they were comfortable with that since they had had to chase small totals and it hadn't mattered until then. I told them that they needed to be more aggressive. Going at 3 to 4 runs an over could be acceptable on English pitches that allowed excessive movement, but on these batting pitches there was no reason to not put on more runs in the first 15 overs."

The other issue was that the team had to be prepared to put on a total that they could defend when the situation demanded. For that they needed to practise batting first. Playing a weaker opposition like Ireland presented a 'safe environment' in which to do so. Accordingly, when Mithali Raj won the toss, she decided to bat first.

When Deepti Sharma and Punam Raut walked out to bat for the fourth time in just over a week, they were already comfortable opening with each other. They had been briefed by captain and coach and were keen to put on a stand at a decent clip. What no one knew was that they were about to carve out their own slice of cricketing history.

The two started off at a modest clip with the first 50 coming in the 12th over. First Punam and then young Deepti took on the role of aggressor. Their century stand came in the 23rd over. Arothe tells me with a laugh his recollection of events at this time: "I was happy with the way they were playing even though I thought they could have pushed the pace more as we had discussed. I left the dressing room at this point and took the bowlers out to the nets behind the ground to give them some batting practice."

Barely 45 minutes had passed when Arothe saw the trainer of the team run out gesturing to him, and clearly excited. "Do you want to pass on any message to Deepti and Punam?" Arothe waited for him to calm down and asked: "What's the score and in how many overs?"

"200 in the 36th over," came the reply. Arothe smiled. It was all starting to come together. "I have nothing to tell them. Let's go and watch them bat instead," he replied.

The pair had scored the first 100 in 22.3 overs. The next 100 came in 13. Arothe could not have come back to his spot on the pavilion at a better time. The 250 of the innings came up in 40.3 overs, preceded by Deepti Sharma's maiden WODI century. Soon after, it was Punam's turn to raise her bat for the very first time.

The pace was now a blistering one. In a flurry of fours and sixes, the pair brought up the 300. The journey from 250 to 300 had taken just over three overs. Smiles adorned the faces of the ecstatic captain and coach. They knew something that the two young women out in the middle were blissfully unaware of €" when their partnership crossed 286, the pair had moved ahead of the existing first wicket record in One Day Internationals (male or female). This record had stood for over a decade in the name of Upul Tharanga and Sanath Jayasuriya of Sri Lanka.

As the Indian total went past 300, Deepti Sharma and Punam Raut became the only opening pair in the history of the sport to record a triple century stand in the limited overs format. There had been iconic pairs in ODI history €" Ganguly and Tendulkar, Greenidge and Haynes, Gilchrist and Hayden. None had made this ascent. It was also the highest partnership for any wicket in Women's ODI history.

In the 46th over with the team score at 320, Deepti Sharma was finally dismissed. She had scored 188 in 160 minutes. It was the second highest score in Women's ODI, and the highest by an Indian left-hander, female or male. Two overs later, Punam retired hurt. She had scored 109. Together, the pair had gone for the wilting bowlers at a blistering pace €" the partnership had come at 7.03 runs per over. Slow strike rates would never be a concern again. The dam had burst.

The final result of the match was a foregone conclusion by the time the Indian innings finished at 358 for 2. A shell shocked Ireland were dismissed for 109, and India won by 249 runs.

The Long Term Impact of Potchefstroom

It may not have been obvious to the team then, but something had fundamentally changed that day at Potchefstroom. It was the emergence of an element that has proved to be the magic potion for some of the greatest teams in history: self-belief.

A month later India were in England for the World Cup. It had been a hard grind getting here, fighting through the qualifiers. The team was finally at full strength with Smriti Mandhana at the top of the order.

The world of cricket had its attention on the usual contenders for the top prize, so when Mithali Raj and her girls made it to the semifinals, eyebrows were raised, and the naysayers both within and outside India, sat up disbelievingly. That Sunday, a young girl from Punjab, turned disbelief into adulation.

Playing what was undoubtedly one of the greatest ODI innings of all time, Harmanpreet Kaur carted the famed Australian attack to all parts of the ground. When she was done, her 171 run effort along with Jhulan Goswami's three crucial strikes had taken India into the final of the World Cup. What was even more remarkable was that Kaur was playing with an injured hand. Arothe had refused to ask for a replacement early in the tournament. "I told them that an injured Harman is better for the team than any fit replacement we can fly in. With that single brilliant innings, she justified our faith in her," he told me.

The team would falter at the final hurdle, losing to England by nine runs at Lord's with 26,000 spectators in the stands and a billion countrymen following every ball on television and social media. But in making it that far against all odds, and inspiring a few hundred Harmanpreets to dream of cricketing glory, Mithali Raj's team had done more for women's cricket in India than they could have ever imagined.

And it all started at that sports village in South Africa, where a group of talented individuals came together as a team and drew inspiration from the greatest stand in the history of Women's Cricket led by a 19-year old.

Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India's Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019.

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