TANSTAAFL. It’s the name of the café in IIM Ahmedabad. An acronym, it stands for ‘There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.’ The concept has often appeared in diverse fields; from economics to literature, and in this case, catering. Always though, it is used to depict cost.
The term came to me when writing about the BCCI women’s domestic schedule for 2018-19 season. There are more matches, better structured pools, more high level tournaments and better pay for India’s female cricketers in the coming season. But conditions apply; if the BCCI gave with one hand, they took away with the other. The youngest slice of India’s cricketing demographic, starving for a decade, is still undernourished.
First, credit where credit is due. The new pool structure means that even losers get to play more. While previously the teams were divided into five groups of five or six teams each, the addition of nine new teams from the north east as well as Bihar has forced an overdue revamp. Like the men’s teams, the women’s teams have now been divided into four pools of nine teams each (10 in case of Elite Group C) for the One-Day format. This means that the minimum matches played by each team just doubled. In the T20 format too, the pool size has increased from five to at least seven, assuring each team of at least six games as opposed to the previous four.
The schedule also specifies that “all groups are equally balanced by taking ranking mechanism into consideration to distribute teams across the groups.” It is a welcome move. In addition, three new tournaments have been added: two Challenger Trophies at the Under-19 and Under-23 age groups, and one T20 tournament for the Under-23 age group. The additions of the Challengers are most welcome. The more tournaments there are that distill the best of India’s vast domestic system into a smaller crucible, the better.
Which brings cost of these changes: three missing tournaments, the inter-zonals. Last season, the inter-zonals were conducted over three age groups in three different formats. The Under-19s played two-day matches, the Under-23s played One-Day matches, and the seniors played three-day matches, these being the only taste of First-Class cricket for India’s women cricketers. It seems the longer formats have now been deemed unnecessary, with India women only playing limited overs matches internationally. BCCI officials did not respond to phone or email queries asking why these tournaments were scrapped.
Even if the BCCI had decided to do away with multi-day matches, a strong case remains for inter-zonal One Day and T20 formats. These offered a bigger stage to perform on and push for national reckoning, and a higher standard where performances could be judged reliably. It also makes the logistics manageable: Without the inter-zonals, the three selectors have to pick just over 36 players for the Challenger Trophy squads from 36 teams! That is 540 players spread across four groups. A near-impossible task to do justice to, one whose lopsided scale is almost designed to allow talent to slip through the net.
Because of the removal of these tournaments, the effective maximum days of cricket for female cricketers has not changed much. Last season, a woman who played every match of the senior circuit played 29 days of cricket. This season, that number will rise to only 32. What will rise is the payments for players, with match fees having been increased from Rs 3,500 to Rs 12,500 for One-Day matches, and half of that for T20s (lower for age group cricket).
Who plays cricket the most? Who is the BCCI’s real target audience? Where is the next generation of talent coming from? School children is the answer to all the above questions, and yet they are the ones who get the worst deal in the new schedule. It contains no mention of an age group below the Under-19 level. BCCI sources clarified that the Under-16 tournament would be conducted at a zonal level, like it was last year. But last year was the first time the BCCI organised an Under-16 tournament since taking over women’s cricket administration. If that fault lies with previous regimes, this one has missed a vital trick by leaving out cricket’s youngest demographic.
Considering that India has a history of producing teenage talent (Smriti Mandhana made her India debut at age 17), the Under-16 age-group and Under-19 age groups are where the BCCI’s considerable funds should have been directed. As things stand, a 14-year-old girl who wants to be the next Mandhana is guaranteed only one tournament in the year, since only three or four players from the Under-16 age group make their state Under-19 squads.
Instead, an extra national tournament has been assigned to the Under-23 age group, who played inter-zonals last season. Considering the unique employment situation in Indian women’s cricket, this is a mistake. At the senior level, India’s domestic system is skewed, dominated by the Indian Railways, the sole employer of female cricketers in India. The Railways also fields a team in the Under-23 age group, corralling the best young talent they have, extending the lop-sidedness to that age group.
This has a another effect: besides the few from the Railways Under-23 team that make the Railways senior squad, the rest get to play only one age-group in a season. Since Railways employ the brightest sparks, some of India’s most talented young cricketers miss out. The age groups of the Under-19 and Under-16, where Railways does not field a team, are the most competitive and egalitarian, and it is there that resources could have been allotted.
The upcoming season also poses an important question for women’s cricket: who runs the show? Until now, Prof Ratnakar Shetty had been charged with the development of the women’s game. With his retirement, some confusion has ensued. A source within the BCCI indicated that Saba Karim will now look into it, though another source said that women’s cricket was being handled by the ‘operations team’. Even if Karim is indeed in charge, as the GM of cricket operations he has a lot on his plate, especially in this season of logistical largesse. Women’s cricket needs its own boss, a single point of contact, whose sole brief is to put in place systems that will help the team win world titles.
The lack of inter-zonals mar some positive changes in the new domestic schedule, while little Under-16 cricket sets India behind by another year. A look at the system behind France’s Football World Cup winning team is instructive. More than the fact that France had 12 centers of excellence around the country, note that they started with students as young as 13.