The women’s Challenger Trophy, the premier event in the women’s domestic calendar, wrapped up Tuesday, at the Moti Bagh Palace stadium in Vadodara. The final saw India Red, lead by Harmanpreet Kaur, lift the title beating India Blue in the final. Red’s Smriti Mandhana stood out in the run tally with 192 runs from three matches, including three fifties, ahead of Blue's Veda Krishnamurthy who scored 126 runs. But in the final, it was a superlative bowling performance that saw India Red restrict the Mithali Raj led India Blue to just 129. Pace bowlers Jhulan Goswami and Sukanya Parida (two wickets each) ripped through the Blue’s top order after Harmanpreet chose to bowl first. The spinners then tightened the noose, to hand India Red the title.
There are however, larger questions hanging over the format of the tournament, which has one team, India Green, made up entirely of U-19 players.
India Green (U-19) still searching for first win
The flashpoint of the tournament had come one game earlier though, as India Green almost pulled off a win against the much fancied India Blue on Sunday. Fitting with the team name, some India Green players are as young as 16. Even their combined experience would not come close to the number of games played by the Blue’s skipper Raj alone. Yet they had the Blues in serious trouble, reducing them to 24 for five before restricting them to 111.
India Green’s inexperience showed when they batted though, as they fell short by 21 runs. Nonetheless, it was the closest any India Green team had run their older and wiser opponents since the U-19 team system was introduced in 2012-13.
Which tells us that the format needs to be given some thought. The Challenger Trophy is meant to be the pinnacle of Indian domestic cricket, the most competitive tournament in the country. It is supposed to distill the talent spread over the vast geography of India into three teams, to provide the selectors a crucible from which to pick the Indian team. It was the first women’s tournament to be played in coloured kit, and also the first to feature the Kookaburra ball. Yet, since India Green was made an U-19 team, the two teams that will play the final have been a forgone conclusion.
Format change required
In the eight matches India Green have played since 2012, they have lost all heavily, barring the one game above. The smallest margins of defeat for India Green before this year was 47 runs and 8 wickets.
Having played in the Challenger Trophy before and after this change in format, I can attest to how much more competitive the tournament was before. With the best talent in the country, irrespective of age, spread out over three teams, it provided a fitting precursor to the international season, a function it serves till today. In this current format though, the best talent above 19 years of age has only two teams in which they must be squeezed into. While the U-19 players gain invaluable exposure playing against a superior team, most of their skills are inchoate. The resulting mismatch affects the competitiveness of the tournament, and undermines its value as preparation for an international series.
A similar experiment is underway in the Australian male domestic tournament, with precocious young players from across the country being clubbed together in a Cricket Australia XI, and pitted against the six state teams. A brainchild of Greg Chappell, Cricket Australia’s National Talent Manager, they have met with similar results so far, winning one out of 12 matches over the last two years, and struggling to be competitive in a number of games.
"I don't think there's any way that young players are going to get better other than playing, particularly playing against good opposition, and being stretched by that opposition”, said Chappell recently.
One of the biggest criticisms of the format though, is the lack of any experienced players who could pass on their knowledge, and provide hands-on, in-game guidance. Not unlike being thrown into the deep end with nothing more than a coaching manual: teach yourself how to swim or drown. While some, most notably Mandhana, have navigated these waters, there are many others who have not.
To its credit, the U-19 Challenger team provides a few younger players valuable captaincy experience, which they certainly would not have been afforded had they been a part of a more experienced squad. The cost to Indian cricket overall though, of making the tournament less closely fought, is far greater.
Good thinking, questionable execution
It would be foolish to discard the intentions behind the introduction of the U-19 team in the Challenger Trophy. And with the next edition of this tournament likely to be held at the start of a new World Cup cycle, the time is ripe for a change.
Two alternatives emerge in an attempt to raise the standard whilst still giving younger players the needed exposure. First, remove the U-19 team, but insist that each team should have at four U-19 players. It would immediately make all three teams of equal strength, while still providing 12 U-19 players exposure to the Challenger Trophy. While six of them may well warm the bench (each squad usually comprises of 13 players), all 12 will certainly gain priceless experience.
The second alternative involves replacing the U-19 team with an U-23 team, an age group the BCCI recently started for females as well in the domestic setup. From this year’s Challenger squads, five players from the India Red and Blue squads would fit into an U-23 team, opening up five spaces for talented players above that age bracket in those two teams. Combined with the eight best U-19 players, they would have formed a team that most would back to compete, and even win.
With little chances of India facing Pakistan in the ICC Women’s Championship, their next opponent is likely to be the World T20 champions West Indies. Even if India do manage to grab all six ICC Championship points on offer, it is impossible (assuming forfeiture of points against Pakistan) for them to qualify directly for the World Cup, to be held in England next year. Which means that now is the time for India to pick 15 players who will play both the World Cup Qualifiers, and the World Cup itself. Unfortunately, the Challenger Trophy in its current avatar is not the best preparation.
“By 2020, India women should be No 1”, Anurag Thakur had said soon after ascending to BCCI presidency. If the BCCI believes in this vision, a Challenger Trophy rejig is something that needs to be looked at urgently. And if they truly wish to give youngsters more opportunities, they need to restart the women’s U-16 age group, one that was held under the previous association, but discontinued when the BCCI took over in 2006. It is a glaring hole in the hull of the India’s domestic system, that has meant that the effect of small international successes has leaked away, instead of trickling down into domestic cricket.
The author is a former international cricketer, and now a freelance sports writer and broadcaster.
Updated Date: Oct 26, 2016 11:59 AM