The England and Wales Cricket Board introduced Chance-To-Shine contracts for their women’s team in 2008. That team then won both ODI and T20I world titles the next year. Cricket Australia followed with similar moves and improved them every few years. They won the next three World T20 titles and a World Cup since. India introduced central contracts in 2015. They reached the finals of the Women’s World Cup in 2017 after crashing and burning in 2013, and returned to the top four of the World T20 this year, after having last qualified in 2010.
The mathematics is clear. Invest in your women’s teams, and in a world where you already have a head-start, you will win titles. Professionalism will bring you titles.
Which brings us to two decisions taken during this World T20, one in the name of being professional, and the other the exact opposite. Mithali Raj was left out of India’s semi-final, as India decided to test the new-found belief that they could win with bold hearts, young legs, and even some wet ears. The policy brought them their best-ever winning streak of eight games in T20Is, including wins against New Zealand and Australia, so it is hard to judge it after one loss. But it’s fallout is questions over the ODI captain’s future in T20Is.
The other decision was from Annisha Gupta, who was understood to be Mithali’s manager, as she unsuitably ranted about how Harmnapreet Kaur was unsuitable to lead India. In an interview to ESPNCricinfo, she later admitted that she was “a little angry” as she tweeted that, and deleted her account.
Two years ago, this would not have been news. With increased professionalism comes increased media scrutiny, and this generation of cricketers - and those who represent them - bear the burden of having to learn how to adapt to that.
In an email to the BCCI that has been leaked, Mithali clarified that it was a difference of opinion with the coach, and with Harmanpreet it was only her “call to support the decision of the coach to leave me out of the XI was baffling and hurtful.” Despite this ‘clarification’, I suspect there will be a sillage of discontent between the two captains should they continue to share a dressing room.
And this situation is partly of the BCCI’s own creation.
Planning for the next World Cup begins the day after the last one ends. Yet India persisted with the dual captaincy model even after the 2017 World Cup. The logical thing to do would have been to hand the reins of the ODI team to Harmanpreet, with Mithali aged 35 and far from a certainty for the 2021 World Cup.
This reflected one of two things: a lack of foresight, or a lack of confidence in the readiness of Harmanpreet Kaur.
Nearly a year later, the second has not yet been proven unfounded. In the semi-final, Harmanpreet Kaur’s tactics bordered on inexplicable, as she persisted with defensive fields when the game could only have been won with wickets being taken. (This could have been the tactic that the team management employed, but I find it hard to believe that Ramesh Powar would opt for a defensive approach, when aggression has being the leitmotif of his short tenure.) Five months ago, Harmanpreet committed a similar tactical error that put India in a vulnerable position in the Asia Cup Final, when she used a frontline bowler to complete an over, leaving India a bowler short at the end.
Has anyone forgotten her outburst at Deepti Sharma in the World Cup semi-final, the one that left the then 19-year old on the verge of tears? If you had, we were reminded of it by her berating of 18-year old Jemimah Rodrigues in this semi-final, after another dodgy run. Harmanpreet has said in an interview, that while she is a shy off the field, “on the field I’m very aggressive”. Emotion is always a factor in cricket, but professionalism demands that it be restrained at times, else we are guilty of being unfair towards Gupta.
The BCCI, distracted and reactive, have let two power-centres form in the women’s team, two that may now find it difficult to coexist. One may not make it to 2021, and the other most likely will, though the thought of her leading India does not make you entirely comfortable (especially if you are a teenager).
So the solution may lie in middle-ground. Mithali is 35, and not the leader for the future, even in the ODI format. Harmanpreet is 29, and could lead India to the next World Cup, but what then? So perhaps it is time for the captaincy to pass to Smriti Mandhana.
Mandhana is 22, one of the best batswoman in the world, and the current T20I vice-captain. In her interactions with the media, she has come across as open and honest, while always aware of the interests of the team. She is well respected on the international circuit, and within the team, and is thus best placed to bridge the gap that will naturally arise when Mithali and Harmanpreet share a dressing room again. She also seems to have a good working relationship with Ramesh Powar, and should his contract be extended (which I believe it should, but more on that in another piece), they could form a successful combination.
Full disclosure: Mandhana and I played for the same state team, Maharashtra, so there will be those who say that my call is biased. But I believe that the fact that we have shared a dressing room puts me in a better position to make this call.
I have seen her cricketing evolution first hand, right from when she was the pre-teen baby of the team. I’ve seen her grow into the batting mainstay, shouldering the burden of being the difference between emphatic victory and crushing defeat. I’ve seen her take up state captaincy at age 18, and handle players like me, a decade her senior, as well as make the new kids comfortable, a testament to her man-management skills. I’ve also seen her pull off wins against more fancied teams, and I believe she has the tactical acumen for the top level.
I’ve seen stand up for the players she believes in. I’ve never seen her lose her temper on the pitch, despite many exasperating moments. And most importantly, I’ve seen her grow into her own over the last two years.
Of course, she is not yet the best she could be as a batswoman, and there is the risk that captaincy - with all the dead weights that involves in the subcontinent - could stifle her talent. But she also seems the best candidate to set in place a culture of respect, honesty and professionalism in this young team, and take it forward into the next two World Cup cycles. With everything that has been playing out in the media over the last week, India need such a shift more than ever.
Let us not pretend that this is any panacea, and that World Cups will hang lower if Mandhana leads. Indian women’s cricket needs a systemic reboot: In an open letter to the BCCI I wrote after the 2017 World Cup Final, I outlined four steps that had to be taken to move the game forward. Barely more than one of those has been implemented. There is a way to go.
But start where you are. The first thing India could do is concentrate the leadership in the hands of an individual who can take the team into a more professional era, and to do so now, with a T20 World Cup 15 months away.