The qualifications scenarios for the T20 World Cup knockouts threatened to descend into disarray as India suddenly found themselves needing to defend 16 off the last over at Melbourne's Junction Oval. The security that often sits well with double-digit scores in tight finishes in T20s rapidly shrunk to insignificance in light of the most feared bowler in the tournament being tonked for 19 in the previous over.
In under a week, Poonam Yadav had gone from twiddling her thumbs on the sidelines with a finger injury to dealing a telling blow to hosts and tournament favourites Australia to conceding four fours in a potentially game-changing 19th over. The last of those occurrences added up to a valiant 19-ball 34 from fellow legspinner Amelia Kerr, who, nine months ago, was tasked with defending seven off the last over against Poonam's side, the Supernovas, in the Women's T20 Challenge in Jaipur.
In the closing minutes of their T20 World Cup face-off on Thursday, Kerr, who played for the Mithali Raj-led Velocity at the Women's T20 Challenge, and Poonam merely seemed to have changed teams. Locked in a showdown between their national sides, New Zealand and India respectively, the other facets to the contest between their two face-offs bore resemblances somewhat uncanny.
Both were high-stakes matches. The final of the Women's T20 Challenge, a domestic three-team tournament organised by the BCCI, was to be an endorsement of the quality of India's domestic depth and the mettle of their nation's best. The game at the Junction Oval, meanwhile, was to decide if India could secure a semi-finals berth with still one game to go or New Zealand spice up the contest in Group A, a win for them potentially thrusting the knockouts qualifications scenario into a battle of net run rate among them, India and Australia.
Many of the chief architects behind the thrilling final in Jaipur, regardless of which side of the result they ended up, also made sure the heat in the rivalry of was at a high at the Junction Oval as India set New Zealand a target of 134.
Topping and tailing the thrill of the game, were India's 16-year-old opener Shafali Verma and pace spearhead Shikha Pandey respectively. While a scintillating 34-ball 46 from Verma propped up a batting performance that saw the rest of the more experienced batters squandering their starts, Pandey, the only medium-pacer in the starting XI on the day, starred with the ball in both opening and closing moments of the chase.
With the new ball under overcast conditions, Pandey bowled a tight first over that fetched her the wicket of Rachel Priest and yielded a solitary run. The second over went for only three, before six of the third set her up for the match-defining 11-run final over, where she nailed two cracking yorkers to clinch a three-run win for India.
"Pandey bowled really well up front and back end," said New Zealand batter Katey Martin. "And she was a big difference today.
"She's a great player. She's been around for a long time. And she executed well and that's what you expect of your senior pros. Being a sole, I guess, pace person in the attack, she bowled really well. And you want to back their experience in there. We had plans against her, and again we couldn't execute 100 percent but we got close in the end. She bowled really well and held it over in the end there."
The other hero for the day was allrounder Radha Yadav. A largely untested - hence unproven - bet with the bat in international cricket, she sat out India's first two games in the World Cup, despite finishing as one of the top wicket-takers in India's runners-up finish at the tri-series last month.
On the eve of the match, when premier batter Smriti Mandhana was asked to pick the batting options capable of providing a final-overs flourish for India, Radha was conspicuously absent among Mandhana's choices (Veda Krishnamurthy, Pooja Vastrakar and teenager Richa Ghosh).
Out of sight, out of mind, Radha, whose primary skill is left-arm spin, first made a statement of intent a 9-ball 14 cameo at No. 9. Riding a missed stumping, Radha scored 10 off four balls in the final-over, the crowning glory in her gallery of shots an inside-out cover drive that went all the way over long-off. The six took India past 130; at the Women's T20 Challenge final, the winning runs for the Harmanpreet Kaur-led Supernovas also came via a boundary off Radha's bat, a flamboyant four drilled through the covers off familiar rival Kerr.
But Radha was far from done yet. For a team that had twice in the tournament so far successfully defended totals in the 130s without Radha, her inclusion as the fourth frontline spinner begged of the 19-year-old left-arm spinner to live up to her role on what Martin described as "a bit of a slow wicket".
Radha would duly repay her captain's faith, starting with five straight dot balls to the in-form Devine in a one-run over. By the end of the match, Radha had figures of 4-0-25-1 to show for her inclusion, and two vital catches - of Priest and Devine - that, to some degree, threw into sharp relief the three dropped chances that contributed to New Zealand's three-run defeat.
And then there were the delirious cricket-hungry fans. If a 12,500-plus crowd got behind the teams on that electric May evening in Jaipur, a bustling Junction Oval saw scores of travelling New Zealand supporters vie for vocal superiority against a raucous Melbourne-based Indian diasporic presence. Several friends and family of players of from both sides, including the father of India batter Jemimah Rodrigues, Harmanpreet Kaur's childhood coach Yadwinder Singh Sodhi, and parents of New Zealand allrounder Suzie Bates, Sophie Devine and Maddy Green, were also in attendance.
The youngest of the New Zealand supporters' band at the windswept Junction Oval was all of 47-days old: Grace, the daughter of Lea Tahuhu and Amy Satterthwaite experienced her first live cricket match snugly buoyed around in a baby carrier attached to Satterthwaite while Tahuhu finished with 2-0-14-1, including the prized wicket of Mandhana.
An inconsequential run-out drew curtains on New Zealand's botched chase despite Kerr's sensational knock. As New Zealand pondered the pinch of their slipshod fielding, Tahuhu joined Grace and Sattherwaite near the fence while the Indian fans slipped into delirium reminiscent of the night in Jaipur when Tahuhu suffered a shoulder dislocation by merely celebrating Radha's title-clinching boundary.