India women's cricket team and Test cricket, these are words that you don't often get to string together in a sentence given the lack of four-day internationals that India play, or for that matter any international team.
So when India took on England in a one-off Test in Bristol, it was only natural they were going to be under intense scrutiny, more so because of the clamour as a result of the huge pay gap with their male counterparts, lack of matches, and Board of Control for Cricket in India's (BCCI) reluctance to start an IPL for the women.
In what was going to be the first Test for India since 2014, they had a lot going against them. The buildup was far from ideal. COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine rules meant there were no practice matches, very little preparation time and they were up against a formidable England side who were at home.
England are not very regular at Test cricket either with just three played in the last seven years. On the limited overs front, they are four-time ODI World champions and also T20 World Cup winners.
Their players came into the match having participated in the ongoing Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, England's women's domestic 50-over competition, and know the conditions well. India last played competitively against South Africa and in the domestic 50-over tournament that got over in the first week of April.
England's lineup for the one-off Test had one debutant, India had five in their ranks. Whichever way you looked at it, the match appeared to be a lopsided contest. A contest between two good teams but with England holding a massive edge.
England came hard at India and despite some of the big batting stars not getting the runs, the young visitors fought tooth and nail to clinch a thrilling draw.
After conceding 396 bowling first and making a strong start in their innings, India were bowled out for 231 and forced to follow on. Rain led to early stumps on Day 3 and it made for a riveting final day.
The visitors once again started strongly but then followed a batting collapse familiar to this Indian side. With half a day of action still to go, India were 199/7 with a lead of just 34 runs. England could see the finishing line but the fight was yet not over.
Veteran Shikha Pandey and debutant Sneh Rana put up 41 together in 95 balls followed by a 104 run partnership between Rana and debutant Tanya Bhatia, for the ninth wicket, which helped India register a famous draw.
Thrill, suspense, and tension, Indian fans went through a sea of emotions during that half a day of action, which made this contest a memorable one. Jhulan Goswami, Smriti Mandhana, Pandey, the experienced lot did play a part in India forcing a draw but the main architects of the result were the youngsters and debutantes.
Rana, coming into the Indian side after 2016, made a hard-fought unbeaten 80 in the second innings and also took four wickets. Bhatia complimented her with an unbeaten 44. Experienced in other formats, debutant Deepti Sharma made a dogged 54 from 168 balls.
Pacer Pooja Vastrakar, another debutant, took one wicket in her 14 overs during England's first innings.
One of the biggest arguments against having a full-fledged women's IPL is the fear of women's cricket in India not possessing enough depth. If anything, the performance of the debutantes and youngsters in the Test showed the future for women's cricket in India is super bright. May be what they need is for the BCCI to be a bit braver.
Shafali the superstar
The most impressive of the debutant lot was Shafali Verma who may not have played a role in the thrilling finish to the game but her top-order exploits had the biggest impact on the course the match took.
The 17-year-old played a stroke-filled knock of 96 in the first innings. With that innings, she broke India's record for the highest score on Test debut. It was earlier held by Chanderkanta Kaul who scored 75 against New Zealand in 1995.
In the second essay, Shafali amassed 63. Her match total of 159 is the third most runs by a player on women's Test debut. Michelle Goszko made 204 on her debut against England in 2001, and Lesley Cooke scored 189 runs in her debut against India in 1986.
Known for her abilities to hit sixes, Shafali was quite calculated in her approach displaying maturity beyond her age. She started cautiously, left the best deliveries, punished the poor ones and raised her strike rate as the innings progressed.
She was overlooked for the ODI series against South Africa in March. Maybe the Test heroics was her way of sending a message to the selectors and her detractors.
Lots to learn
Despite the admirable result, there's still a lot India can learn from the Test. India had England on the ropes at 270/7 in the first innings but allowed the hosts to get away as they declared on 396/6.
From being 167/0 to being reduced to 197/8 in the first innings and stumbling from 171/3 to 199/7 in the second, India suffered batting collapses in both innings as the middle-order failed.
These are areas of major concern that India need to sort out. One of the best ways to work on them is to play as many matches as possible and gain more experience.
India apart from boasting the richest cricket board also have the biggest cricketing audience and sponsors pool. India women's team and the gripping Test match showed the value they can bring to the cricketing world. It's now for the cricket boards and administrators to make the right move. If BCCI has got the message, we would soon see more Test matches for India and other international women's teams.