Imagine the eight best sprinters in the world, lining up for the 100 metre final of the Olympics. At stake is the biggest prize in the sport, boiling down to this singular competition; to earn the title of Champion of the world for the next four years.
Now imagine that some contestants get a one-second head start. Picture the looks on the faces of those who are left behind. That is exactly what the Indian women’s team should be feeling like leading into the ICC Women’s World Cup in England in June 2017.
India’s biggest competitors are going into the tournament with a massive head start. For a number of years, they have had professional contracts of various shapes and sizes, while India have been the last to jump onto the contract bandwagon.
Hosts England were one of the first teams to introduce a semblance of professionalism to their women’s team, when in 2008, they introduced Chance To Shine contracts for some of their players. These contracts gave the core of their women’s team the opportunity to balance their training schedules around coaching appearances for the Chance To Shine charity. The results were immediate, with England enjoying a golden year in 2009, winning both the World Cup and the WT20 within months of each other.
Australia soon took things a level higher. They introduced central contracts with ambassadorial roles for their entire women’s team in 2008, and like England, saw the results much faster than many would have predicted. Starting from 2010 to 2014, they won a hat trick of WT20 titles, and also pocketed the World Cup in 2013 for good measure.
Both countries have progressively ramped up their contract lists every year, in quality and quantity. In 2014, the ECB awarded landmark contracts that amounted to their team becoming fully professional. In Australia, the Southern Stars are now the highest paid female sports' team in the country. Even one of their domestic women’s teams, New South Wales, offer professional contracts. Cricket Australia are now scratching the new glass ceiling of equal pay rates for men and women.
The West Indies (since 2010) and New Zealand (since 2014) too have had some form of contract systems in place for some years now, and along with England and Australia, they made up the top four in the ICC Women’s Championship, which was the qualifying tournament for the World Cup.
The West Indies started with six players on national contracts in 2010, and now have 15. They went on to beat Australia in the historic finals of the WT20 in 2016. Even Pakistan (2011) and South Africa (2013) – both ranked below India in the ICC Women’s Championship – have had contracts for their women’s teams for years now.
India, meanwhile, only introduced national contracts for the women’s team late in 2015. Till then, female cricketers were dependent on the government jobs that most of them hold to provide them with financial security, and the opportunity to train in a semi-professional manner. But those jobs came with various riders; depending on how flexible their individual departments were, the players had to attend government offices for four to eight hours a day when not travelling for tournaments. It left little time for the type of training international cricket demands.
For the most part, the Railways have helped Indian female cricketers hobble along so far. India’s best female cricketers have only received financial security (if you can call an annual performance-based contract that) from the BCCI since 2015.
Essentially, it means that teams like England and Australia, many of whose core players have remained the same since the 2013 World Cup, come into this year’s tournament with many more hours of training and preparation behind them, as compared to their Indian counterparts.
Their players have benefited from training in a professional culture for considerably longer, with the financial security to devote more time to training than ever before. In economic terms, the rich have spent years getting richer, and the gap is already quite wide.
India must now play the ultimate game of catch up. Off the field, it is up to the BCCI to ensure that they meaningfully build on the contracts of 2015.
Announcing a new list of contracts for this year is a bare minimum (no point flogging the dead horse of the lack of a contract list in 2016). The same security must go to the coaches' position as well, which has been renewed on a series to series basis so far.
As for the players, they are unlikely to go into the tournament feeling disadvantaged. They have had promising results in the last year, most recently an emphatic win in the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier. On the field, the Indian team will have to fall back on a trusted but intangible ingredient to make up the distance: Their talent, and their belief in it.
Often named as the most talented team in the world (though the West Indies may well lay claim to that title now), India have for the same reason, been considered perpetual underperformers. Nothing highlights India’s ability despite circumstances more than when they beat England, against all odds, in an away Test in 2014, well before receiving contracts, and just after England got theirs.
Now, in possession of contracts but still not quite on a level playing field, talent must be the nitrous oxide cylinder which India uses to surge ahead in the race, and hope that their tanks lasts longer than the other teams.
The author is a former India cricketer and a freelance journalist. She hosts the YouTube series 'Cricket How To', and tweets @SnehalPradhan