For Delhi Capitals, the summer of 2023 will be special. Not least because they upstaged Mumbai Indians to qualify directly for the inaugural WPL final, where they will face... Mumbai again. After the auction, their co-owner Parth Jindal said "we believe we've got a winning squad", and their journey has proved him right.
In winning six out of eight games with several match-winners rising to the fore, Capitals have also exhibited the human side of fiercely competitive professionals who do whatever it takes in a cut-throat world. Irrespective of whether they lift the crown on Sunday, they're all winners.
When Meg Lanning took an indefinite break from cricket last August, it sparked fears that she might not return. The competitive juices that had fuelled her rise from Australia's youngest captain to one of the country's GOATs had gone missing. She'd won possibly everything there was to be won - T20 World Cups, 50-over World Cups, Ashes series, but something was amiss.
Away from the limelight, Lanning gave her "ever-ticking cricket brain" some rest to follow set processes at a Melbourne cafe. She made cappuccinos and flat whites, served orders, washed dishes, billed, and managed inventory. She woke up every day with the excitement of meeting new customers, many of whom were "clueless about who I am or what I do". It allowed her to see life in a different light.
Since her comeback in January, Lanning has led Australia to T20 World Cup glory in South Africa last month and is the leading run-getter at the WPL, with 310 runs in eight innings at a strike rate of 141.55. She'd happily trade those runs now for another trophy, her first major one in T20 leagues.
Away from Melbourne, but not too far away, in Brisbane, Shikha Pandey scripted an unusual, but memorable chapter that helped rediscover her passion last August-September. Being left out of last year's 50-over World Cup in New Zealand left her shattered and in a "dark place." She considered quitting, only to be coaxed into deferring her decision.
An avid reader, Pandey came across an article in which Tahlia McGrath spoke about how she had benefited from her interactions with Belinda Clark, the former Australia captain. These chats had helped McGrath overcome personal setbacks in her journey to win the Baggy Green.
A casual introductory chat with Clark would lay the foundation for proper one-on-one mentorship that Pandey is thankful for. Clark also helped facilitate a club-cricket stint for Pandey, during which she lived with a local Indian family and enjoyed playing without the performance pressures that burden overseas professionals in competitive leagues like the WBBL or The Hundred.
"Shikha didn't need someone feeling sorry for her," Clark tells ESPNcricinfo. "It was easy [having conversations] because Shikha was so open and honest. She was keen to explore and try things. She was more likely to benefit from understanding what she was experiencing and then helping her find a plan to move forward.
"She is an enthusiastic learner, a deep thinker and a problem-solver so once she focused on her strengths, she found a way to help others. [Today] I see a more confident Shikha. Someone who has committed to always getting better and helping others do the same. She found a way to rediscover the joy of the game."
At the WPL, Pandey has been Lanning's go-to bowler in different phases. Her 10 wickets in eight games at an economy rate of 6.71 are the third-most among fast bowlers in the competition, behind Issy Wong (12) and Kim Garth (11).
Like Pandey, Jemimah Rodrigues wasn't picked for the 50-overs World Cup after she had failed to reach double figures in five successive ODI innings in 2021. She described missing out as "one of my lowest phases", and wanted to take control of her career again. She went back to her roots, into Mumbai's cricket cradle.
"I went to Azad Maidan during that time, and I was playing matches against the boys," she said. "In the morning, there's so much dew, this huge ground, many pitches, nobody covers the ground - you can put your finger inside the pitch. In those conditions I had to play Under-19 boys. Putting myself in such situations actually helped me, getting out of my comfort zone.
"I changed the way I practice. I changed the way I plan my innings. I understood my game better. I understood the value of good relationships at that time and at the same time it felt like that was that was one of the lowest phases of my life, but it turned out to be the reason why I could come here today."
Rodrigues opened this year's T20 World Cup with an unbeaten 38-ball 53 in a thrilling win over Pakistan, and she's carried the renewed confidence into the WPL, where she is Lanning's deputy.
She hasn't had too many opportunities with Capitals boasting a robust top three in Lanning, Shafali Verma and Alice Capsey, but Rodrigues has been a lively presence on the field, often beside Lanning while taking big calls, often lending an arm around the young Indian players.
Lanning, Pandey and Rodrigues are just three examples. There are others who've endured challenging times too but have focused on their task to deliver in telling ways.
Marizanne Kapp has had to grapple with the emotions of seeing her wife, Dane van Niekerk, fight through the career low of being dropped from South Africa's T20 World Cup squad due to fitness issues. At the WPL, she's been a key player for Capitals with both bat (159 runs at a strike rate of 127.20) and ball (nine wickets at an economy rate of 5.75).
She's been part of the Oval Invincibles team that won back-to-back Women's Hundred titles, and won the 2021 WBBL with Perth Scorchers. A WPL title now could complete an enviable collection.
Jess Jonassen went from benchwarmer to world champion on the back of two impact performances in the knockout stages of the T20 World Cup. She's carried that form into the WPL to turn in two match-winning performances with the bat down the order, apart from delivering her ever-reliable, thrifty left-arm spin.
Taniya Bhatia, who has lost her place in the Indian team, has been backed to do a specialist job as a wicketkeeper even as other teams have punted on makeshift options, like Mumbai did with Yastika Bhatia and Royal Challengers Bangalore with Richa Ghosh.
Bhatia fell out of favor seemingly because she's seen as "one dimensional", but the virtues of having a solid wicketkeeping option on tired decks were realised as she effected four stumps in Delhi's most-recent outing against UP Warriorz.
Personal triumphs aside, there has been a proper method to Capitals' approach. They've been fairly consistent with their XIs, only making the odd change based on conditions. Lanning hasn't always used every bowling option at her disposal because she's had plenty.
It perhaps explains why Arundhati Reddy has bowled all of nine overs in six games, for two wickets. Or why Laura Harris has featured only once..
They've also made smart tactical moves, like promoting Capsey from the lower middle order to No. 3 to offset spin on slightly tired surfaces in the second half of the season, seemingly because they rate her batting against this variety highly. She's returned scores of 38, 22, 38* and 34 in her last four innings.
Capitals have also used the 'Associates' card tactfully to play USA's Tara Norris, who has learned much of her cricket in the UK where she's a regular feature in the Hundred. Norris set the stage alight in the opening game, picking up the WPL's first five-for.
Shafali Verma couldn't buy a run during her run to India's Under-19 World Cup title. The struggle continued at the T20 World Cup that followed. But she has been backed to deliver, like teams often do by giving their X-factor players a long rope in the hope of getting that one blockbuster performance.
Shafali delivered two in the first week of the competition alone: a 45-ball 84 in Capitals' opener against RCB and a 28-ball 76 not out to blindside Gujarat Giants. Last week, Lanning spoke of how she's learning to reset her batting template after watching Shafali play shots off deliveries you couldn't possibly think of hitting to the boundary.
Capitals' on-field performances have fed off, and fed into, the camaraderie their players have shared off the field.
Every team barring Capitals has arranged for a dedicated team room at their hotels, where the players get together to play table tennis, pool, videogames, or just hang out. Capitals don't have one. But it hasn't prevented the players from bonding over milestones, birthdays or festivals. The entire group came together on Holi, which was an icebreaker.
After an introductory dinner where youngsters were quiet and reserved, the team's winning vibe has rubbed off on the players' personalities. It's not uncommon to see Minnu Mani at the breakfast table with Pandey, or Jasia Akter playing pool with Kapp. Or Radha Yadav getting Lanning to pose like Shah Rukh Khan in front of the Gateway of India. Each bus ride between hotel and stadium sees a different DJ choosing the playlist.
Capitals have focused on these little things to ensure a level of sanity amid an unrelenting schedule: they played their first five games in the space of 10 days.
The toil, the hard work, the character-building, and the winning mindset have brought Capitals to the cusp of glory. All that remains is one more blockbuster performance on the grandest stage.