At a panel discussion during the launch of The Fire Burns Blue – A History of Women’s Cricket in India, the panelists which included two former India captains – Pramila Bhat and Mamatha Maben, believed that 2018, like the previous year, was significant for the sport in the country.
A country previously oblivious to women’s cricket embraced new stars after India’s 2017 World Cup final appearance where they lost to England by nine runs. Equally interesting was how the wider public got involved in the controversy surrounding the exclusion of Mithali Raj from the team for the 2018 World Twenty20 semifinal against England.
The overwhelming response to Mithali’s tweet, where she stated it to be “the darkest day of my life”, established that women’s cricket has truly entered India’s public consciousness after more than four decades of struggle. It was a significant moment in a society where casual sexism is often taken for granted.
Here's a look at the key talking points of women’s cricket in India in 2018.
Change in mindset
India’s first assignment after the World Cup was the tour of South Africa in February this year, and the team played with chutzpah to seal both the ODI and T20I series. But soon India slipped into a defensive mindset – maybe because of the fear of losing out on the newfound fame – which came to the fore during the home ODIs and T20Is against Australia and England, and in the T20 Asia Cup where they lost to Bangladesh in the final. Suddenly those who had played with freedom seemed restricted in their thought process, indicating an urgent need for a mental conditioning coach – a post BCCI is still to advertise for.
Tushar Arothe, the coach, resigned soon after the Asia Cup loss very early into his two-year contract, and Ramesh Powar was given the reign for three months. He liberated the players, urging them to dominate the opposition instead of just looking to win. It led to the emergence of many youngsters led by Jemimah Rodrigues who had till then been unsure of their place in the scheme of things.
India made it to the World T20 semifinal for the first time in eight years on the back of a brilliant all-round show. The catch Radha Yadav took off her own bowling by running backward towards mid-on to dismiss Australia’s Delissa Kimmince in the last league game of the World T20 has to be one of the best fielding moments in India’s cricket history.
BCCI’s mixed bag of strategies
The three ODIs against Australia in a small city like Baroda attracted packed stadium. Mithali said that the last time she had played in front of such an enthusiastic crowd at home was way back in 2004.
BCCI, though, went the other extreme by hosting the tri-nation T20I series in Mumbai with matches starting at 10 am. There were hardly any takers. Similarly, the subsequent three ODIs against England in Nagpur did not have a broadcaster. India won two thrilling encounters to pull off the series, but only those with access to the internet were witness to it as the matches were live streamed on the BCCI website. India played just eight matches at home through the year.
BCCI deserves credit for trying to build the India ‘A’ team. They played practice matches against Australia and England, and then Australia ‘A’ travelled to Mumbai for a full series against India ‘A’. And they need to be admired for expanding the pool of players for central contracts. The big names got a significant rise while newcomers had their futures secured.
Women’s IPL – A long way to go
The exhibition T20 game between Harmanpreet Kaur’s Supernovas and Smriti Mandhana’s Trailblazers scheduled ahead of the IPL play-off match between Chennai Super Kings and Sunrisers Hyderabad at the Wankhede Stadium was a novel concept. The execution, though, left a lot to be desired. The scheduling and ticketing policy did not encourage a clamour at the gates.
It was a sight to behold as Indian players shared the dressing room with some of the big names from Australia, England and New Zealand. Ellyse Perry said that “IPL for women is the missing piece of the puzzle.” The truth is that in its current state of turmoil, BCCI does not have the bandwidth to fill that gap.
At a time when Australia and England continue to push the bar through Women’s Big Bash League and Kia Super League, every year without Women’s IPL will further delay India’s extended talent pool meeting international standards.
Vacuum in domestic calendar
All state teams got to play more matches in 2018-19 as nine teams were introduced because of the implementation of the Lodha recommendations, but the women’s domestic calendar is still not half of the men’s calendar even without considering two months of IPL.
The inter-zonal three-day competition was removed without any notification. One lazy argument is that since India do not play Test matches anymore, there is no need for days cricket. The playing community, though, is unhappy with the development. The consensus is that the longer format contributes significantly in developing the temperament of the players.
Only four days of domestic cricket were on television throughout the year. BCCI needs to push for the count to increase on that front also if expanding the depth of the narrative is a priority.
Year of Smriti and Poonam
Harmanpreet’s 51-ball 103 against New Zealand on the inaugural day of the World T20 was the best innings played by an Indian batswoman. She also now has the second-most runs in a calendar year, but 2018 belonged to Mandhana and Poonam Yadav.
Mandhana started the year with a terrific series in South Africa and followed it up with attractive knocks against Australia and England at home. The way she adapted to the conditions to make two half-centuries in the ODI series win against England in Nagpur signified her maturity and versatility. She ended as the highest run-getter in ODIs in 2018. Mandhana also aced T20s, topping the batting charts at KSL with 421 runs at a strike-rate of 174.68 which took Western Storm to the semifinals.
Poonam, the legspinner, added new variations to her repertoire to go past Jhulan Goswami, who retired from T20Is this year, as India’s highest wicket-taker in the format. In fact, she finished with 35 wickets in T20Is – the most by any bowler in the format in a calendar year.
Ugly from BCCI
The way BCCI officials leaked out emails pertaining to the disagreements between Powar and Mithali was ugly in every sense. Despite Harmanpreet and Mandhana extending their support for Powar’s coaching style, the Committee of Administrators invited applicants for the vacant post. Even though Diana Edulji, one half of COA, did not approve the process, Vinod Rai, her counterpart, oversaw the formation of an ad-hoc committee of Shantha Rangaswamy, Kapil Dev and Aunshuman Gaekwad to select the new coach.
The committee’s first choice was Gary Kirsten followed by WV Raman and Venkatesh Prasad. When it was known that Kirsten, who is the coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, had a conflict of interest, he should not have been shortlisted. Another case of poor management.
The entire saga raised more questions than providing solutions. As Maben said at the panel discussion, “we need a visionary” for women's cricket to develop organically in India. Till that happens, things will be governed on an ad-hoc basis, and it is unhealthy.