As India fell a mere nine runs short of lifting their maiden Women's World Cup on Sunday after losing a thriller against three-time champions England, people all across the country — in dining rooms, trains, airports and in just about any place with a TV set, sighed in dejection. The trophy that they thought was theirs for the taking was just snatched away from them when Anya Shrubsole went through the defence of Rajeshwari Gayakwad.
While it would take a while for the players and the fans to come to terms with the loss, the many positives from India's four-week-long campaign do suggest that this Indian team has all the right ingredients to be top-notch in the years to come.
As the saying goes, they just have to take it to the next level.
And that is what India captain Mithali Raj possibly alluded to in the aftermath of Sunday’s defeat, asking for a women’s version of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
While an IPL for women is desirable, it would be better if those with the best interests of women’s cricket in mind work more towards ensuring an overall increase in the density of international fixtures for the team.
No one who watched the final can look past the fact that for a large chunk of the match India were in the driver’s seat. They had been mostly clinical until that point, and barring the run out of Raj, all was going according to plan. With the score at 182 for three after 42 overs, it was India’s game to lose. And lose they did.
It’s not every day that you see a team lose seven wickets for 28 runs, and that too in a situation where the required run rate is not more than run-a-ball.
While all credit must be given to the team for their run to the final, in a crunch situation, in front of a packed stadium, and with people across the globe glued to the game, India buckled under pressure.
The Women in Blue didn’t lose the game because of a lack of power-hitting in their line-up, something that is central to the idea of T20 cricket. Never during the game did the required run rate jump to unmanageable levels. Even in the last five overs of the chase, India needed 31 runs, which didn’t demand someone with a strike rate of 160! What India desperately would have been craving for at that moment was a calm head — someone who could milk the easy singles, give confidence to the non-striker and wait for the odd bad ball to pick up a boundary. However, that wasn’t to be as the Indian players seemed overawed by the occasion, which simply put the game in the hosts' lap.
Such brain fades usually occur when the players in question aren’t entirely accustomed to the rigours of high pressure situations. Over the years, every great player has time and again vouched for the importance of match practice. The ability to soak up pressure, to grind through a tough spell of fast bowling, to block out the opposition and the crowd – all of those come into the picture when your team is stuck in a tricky chase. Experience is equal to gold dust in situations like the one on Sunday.
This Indian team was light on experience. And that is because of a lack of consistent exposure to international cricket.
Ever since coming on to the international stage in 1978, the Indian women’s team has played a total of 248 ODIs. That is, on an average, our women's team has played a little over five games per year. If we discount the 63 matches that the team has played in World Cups during this period, India have just played 185 games. Another fact that needs some consideration here is that out of the 248 matches that India took part in, 99 were held in India itself. It means almost half of India’s ODI cricket has been played in their own backyard, something that makes them all the more vulnerable when they come across alien conditions, such as those in England or Australia.
The situation in the Test format is much worse. Although there has been an increase in the number of ODIs for the women since the beginning of the 21st century, in Tests, the frequency of games has been much shoddier. India have been a participant in 36 Tests since 1978, which works out to less than one Test a year. In November, it will be three years since the Women in Blue last played a Test. In the last 17 years, India has played only 10 Tests (three in 2002, one in 2003, one in 2005, three in 2006 and then after a gap of eight years, two in 2014).
Let's put this into perspective. Karun Nair, who didn’t even play all the games of the 2016-17 home Test season for the men's team, has in fact played exactly the same number of Tests as what the women’s team has played in the last 12 years. Now that should be a cause of great concern for anyone who wants to see women’s cricket succeed in the long run.
Thus, evidently, India’s women cricketers haven’t been given enough opportunities to hone their skills so far. Instead, they have been made to wait for good quality cricket for far too long. That they reached the final of the World Cup despite all this should in itself be worth a celebration.
It isn’t that the demand for an IPL is totally unacceptable. An IPL for women can make the players more secure financially and take the game to the public a lot more. But it isn’t the answer to the team’s inability to handle pressure.
An IPL may well be the future of women’s cricket ahead, but the present set of players would be better served if more international matches come their way. Until then, breakdowns like the one on Sunday, would be a recurring phenomena.