Not often do the Australia Women’s team seem beatable. Let alone seem outplayed. It will be a task to find any other team across sports that has been as superior to their competitors as this Aussie team. They have lost one of their last 42 ODIs. And even in a format like T20, where at the start of the game, the win probability of two sides of comparable capabilities is 60%-40% on most days, Australia have lost only one of their last 23 matches. That too in a Super Over against India, when the sides ended even in the allotted overs.
Outside that loss, Australia have looked beatable only twice in this run. Both against India. Both against a Harmanpreet Kaur masterclass who stood like a giant rock holding back the Aussie barrage. On both occasions, a crack in that rock gave Australia the opening that crumbled the Indian wall down. Despite being behind in the game in the final of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) and the semis of the recent T20 World Cup, Australia found a way.
But they did seem outplayed once in this period. It was the opening match of the CWG. Chasing a challenging total against who else but India who scored 154 assisted by who else but Harman, Australia were five down for 49 in the eighth over. Renuka Singh had gotten Alyssa Healy, Beth Mooney, Meg Lanning and Tahlia McGrath in her first spell. Deepti Sharma accounted for Rachael Haynes. Ashely Gardner seemed short of partners with Australia eyeing almost an embarrassment for the side of their stature. It was 67 W-T20Is and six years ago that Australia lost half their side with these many runs or fewer.
In walked Grace Harris who last played Australia in 2016. Two games before they lost five wickets for 30 against New Zealand during the T20 World Cup in March 2016. This was also the only T20 World Cup that Australia have not won since winning their first in 2010. But against India on that day at Birmingham, from a position of being outplayed, Australia unearthed another superstar in an already filled-to-the-brim blockbuster which is their Women’s cricket team.
Though Gardner won the final accolades by remaining unbeaten in the chase, it was Harris who through one blow after another pulled the game back in Australia’s favour. With two right-handers in the middle, it made perfect sense for India to unleash their two left-arm orthodox spinners from both ends. But, distinguished physical attributes are often a counter to any match-up. On a pitch that has bounce, even the most gifted pacers will struggle to match lesser bowlers who happen to be tall. Like how even the most skillful forwards struggle to breach the Italian defense at times. With brute power and some clean striking, Harris took down Radha Yadav and Rajeshwari Gayekwad, scoring 31 off 14 against them and leaving India’s skipper searching for answers. In a 51-run sixth wicket stand, Harris scored 37 off just 20 balls.
Her record up till that day in Birmingham was anything but inspiring. In 11 T20Is, she was averaging 13.33 with half of those runs scored against the Irish Women’s team. Her ODI numbers were even worse, three in six innings. All these games were five years back, when she played as a lower-order batter who can bowl. A blood clot in her leg ensured she missed the 2016 World Cup and was in and out of the squad and always out of the XI since. Despite being the first cricketer to score a Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) hundred in 2015 and the fastest one in 2018, in the three WBBL years from 2019 to 2021, her strike rate was 114.2, decent but not special. In other world, Harris might have mistimed one shot against India and at 28, one more injury would have probably meant the end of the road of her Australian career.
But things clicked for Harris that day and something clicked in her after that. The physical strength that was a point of difference between her and others was married with belief. Since that morning of the CWG, no other cricketer has been striking the ball as brutally as Harris.
The difference between the Harris’ strike rate and the next best is 27.8. If we try and be cheeky and extrapolate it over 120 balls, the length of a T20 innings, it comes to ~33 runs. A difference big enough to be the margin of win in 90% of T20 games. Though that is not how we should look at the impact of lower-order hitters, but you get the gist. Her strike rate against every bowling type has been above 150. No one is spared.
Holly Ferling was Harris’ W-BBL teammate for the Brisbane Heat during 2015-18. The years of her peak dominance before a lull. Having witnessed her potential first-hand, Ferling tipped Harris to be her first-choice pick among Australian players for the Women’s Premier League (WPL). This interaction was during a live commentary stint in the WBBL with Lisa Sthalekar, the mentor for the UP Warriorz who picked Harris at a bargain for INR 75 lakhs.
.@Holly_Ferling hits the bulls eye on Grace Harris. Tip my hat for this. pic.twitter.com/6yc1k7evPX— Harvik Desai (@TheFlamingoShot) March 5, 2023
Ferling’s reason for picking Harris over proven legends was her ability to be a match-winner. In their first WPL game against Gujarat, UP got to a living proof of that ability. Two balls into her knock, UP found themselves needing 82 off seven overs with only four wickets in hand. They were soon seven down with 63 more needed in four overs. A situation with only one result possible in most games. What followed was brute power delivered with silken ease. Set at 15 off 13, Harris hit 44 of the next 13, scoring off against both pace and spin to finish the game with a ball to spare.
In the only close game of the tournament so far, Harris proved to be the point of difference with a knock that would have sent shivers down the spine of all other sides. “Grace is Grace” is what UP’s skipper, Healy, said post game. Having played in the same XI as Harris, she like everyone else who have played against the Aussies must have known by now that even in a team full of match-winners, what Harris brings to the table is one-of-a-kind.