India’s women cricketers have nothing to play for

Nine months and counting, that’s how long India’s women team has not played international cricket. The men are at work in Australia after a full season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) but on their social media handles, India’s women cricketers are posting pictures of another time. One when a global health epidemic had not disrupted lives. “Cricket has gone back by a year or two,” said former India captain Shanta Rangaswamy.

2020 is going to end very differently for the women in blue from how it began. Through February and early March, India were talking about the team that coursed to Women’s World T20 final. Shafali Varma, Harmanpreet Kaur, Jemima Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana were not just names Rohtak, Moga, Mumbai and Sangli were proud of by the time India lined up against Australia in front of 86,174 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

That was then. The men’s domestic season too hasn’t started but the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has scheduled the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 in January. One day prior to the BCCI’s annual general meeting in Ahmedabad, there is no clarity on when the women’s season will begin. Nor is it known when the team will play internationals. The earliest India would be back in action is possibly next February-March if talks with South Africa or Sri Lanka fructify.

It was not as if there were no takers. England were willing to host India in a bio-secure bubble in August-September. And now, the tour to Australia scheduled for early next year has been postponed to the latter half of 2021. If there are reasons, the BCCI is not sharing it.

“It’s baffling that the Australia tour is not happening for the women. Australia have successfully conducted more than 50 WBBL (Women’s T20 meet) games,” said former player Anju Jain. “There is nothing on the domestic front, either. They are organising Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy but nothing for women. Not even camps. Players will lose their focus and match-practice.”

No games are a major part of the problem but not the only problem. The national team does not have a physio, a fielding coach, or a team manager. Head coach WV Raman’s contract expires this month. Saba Karim, BCCI GM in-charge of women’s cricket, is serving out a notice period. Raman and Karim did not wish to comment. The BCCI did not reply to mails, messages or calls .

Outside India, women’s cricket is picking up pace again. New Zealand have played six limited overs matches in Australia; West Indies played five in England and Pakistan will be touring South Africa next month. Cricket Australia also conducted its premier franchise competition Women’s Big Bash (WBBL) over a five-week window.

Kaur, Mandhana, Rodrigues, Verma and Deepti Sharma, who could all have landed contracts with WBBL teams, had to miss this edition because BCCI didn’t want its Women’s T20 Challenge to be shorn of star power.

Rangaswamy, who is also a BCCI Apex Council member, said: “The pandemic made things difficult to have any cricket at home. Creating a bio-bubble is an expensive affair. All sports bodies look at where the money is.”

The money is in the men’s game. IPL generates Rs 4000 crore of revenue for BCCI; it is the kind of money that oils the wheels of the sport in India. And the current series in Australia is the kind that keeps broadcasters, boards and the paying public hooked. Equal pay, the cry that rocked football after USA won the women’s World Cup last year, thus stays a pipe dream in Indian cricket. There are 22 women cricketers contracted in three grades but the Grade A women’s contract (R50 lakh) is exactly half a Grade C men’s contract.

Packed 2022

“I can understand the priority is men’s cricket, but now what? Is it a matter of convenience? How is Harmanpreet Kaur expected to hit sixes the moment she goes to bat, if she does not get to play? And nobody is getting younger. Players want to prepare for some target. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but at the moment there is a great cloud of uncertainty,” said Anjum Chopra, a former India captain turned pundit.

There is no world event for women in 2021. But 2022 has the ODI World Cup, women’s cricket debuting in the Commonwealth Games and the T20 World Cup is scheduled for February 2023. So far, all the India women have played is the Women’s T20 Challenge, a four-team competition during IPL in UAE. One where Rangaswamy says players were out of touch.

“After the Women’s T20 Challenge, we should have been in a position to figure out what our next series is,” said former India star Shubhangi Kulkarni who was secretary of Women’s Cricket Association of India before its merger with BCCI in 2006. “If girls don’t have any cricket, the selectors don’t get to watch them, how are we going to prepare for the 2022 World Cup?”

“2020 has been an incredibly tough year for everyone. Having said that, I am looking forward to 2021 with a lot of hope,” said Mithali Raj, India’s ODI captain. “I am confident domestic cricket for us will start soon, and I also hear we will get enough preparatory tours for the ODI World Cup.”

By then, the sport may have lost Gayatri Naik to what she says is a “practical decision.” Naik plays for Baroda and 13 years ago, was among the two girls who had caught Sandip Patil’s eye at a talent hunt in Mumbai. “I figured there was little chance of any cricket. I decided to explore other things which I was good at, like photography. I have found myself a private job,” said Gayatri. “It was a very tough decision, because I have been playing cricket since I was eight.”

“We have no idea what the FTP (Future Tours Programme) for women’s cricket is going to be like, while the men’s calendar is laid down for the whole of next year. It was nice to know that associations’ opinion were sought on which format of domestic cricket should restart (for men), but same efforts could have been made for women too,” said Chopra.

There were 897 women’s matches last year involving over 2500 cricketers. All of them are waiting for directions from BCCI. The idea of domestic contracts is gathering dust. No cricket means also means no match fees.

(With inputs from Shalini Gupta)

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