After six years, India women cricketers again take the red-ball leap | Crickit
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After six years, India women cricketers again take the red-ball leap

Apr 13, 2024 04:30 PM IST

Younger players finally got a feel of the three-day format with the inter-zonal tournament that ended in Pune this week

The senior women’s inter-zonal multi-day tournament concluded in Pune on Thursday, East Zone lifting the trophy after a one-wicket win over South. Central Zone’s Punam Raut aggregated the most runs, scoring 84 and 174 against West Zone, and East Zone captain Deepti Sharma topped the wicket-takers’ tally with 27 scalps. The tournament was low-key, neither televised nor mentioned in BCCI press releases.

Deepti Sharma(BCCI) PREMIUM
Deepti Sharma(BCCI)

However, it was a watershed moment in Indian women’s cricket, the three-day format making a quiet return after six years despite not figuring in BCCI’s initial 2023-24 schedule that featured three senior women’s tournaments, all in the white-ball category.

Two reasons are attributed to the late inclusion of this multi-day tournament. With BCCI planning to expand the women’s international calendar, meaning more red-ball (four-day) cricket could be held soon, there was a need to check the skill level of the current pool of players and their willingness to adapt to the longest format. There is also a conscious effort to inculcate a red-ball cricket culture so that women understand, embrace and prepare for structured domestic cricket.

Polishing long-format skills

And the reports have been encouraging so far. Bowlers like Deepti Sharma, Minnu Mani and Radha Yadav bowled upwards of 15 overs per innings; Punam Raut, Dhara Gujjar and Miriyala Durga ended up facing over 400 balls as teams pushed to their limit to play out around 70 overs per innings on average. This was more of a baptism for the younger players and seniors like Smriti Mandhana — who captained West Zone —acknowledged its significance by dropping to No.8 to let others get a proper feel of the format. It still wasn’t an easy transition for most.

“It was my first time playing red-ball cricket and hence a completely different experience,” said Uma Chetry, who opened the batting for East Zone. “In T20 you can’t think too much. But in red-ball cricket, we finally understood the value of patience, to pick the right shot. It was different but fun. Opening the batting was challenging because the red ball swings more, but experienced players like Deepti Sharma kept advising me on how to approach every over.”

The allure of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) is understandable but this tournament has provided a different experience, especially to the younger players. “Everything changed, from planning to execution,” said all-rounder Amanjot Kaur, who played for North Zone. “The concepts of leads and draws were still new to some. Three-day cricket too is different from four or five-day cricket. Plus the red ball needs to be played late because it swings more, you need to leave the ball sometimes. That was new.”

In the last four years, India have played four Tests against England and Australia, home and away. It’s too little but considering India hadn’t played a single red-ball game between 2014 and 2021, it’s still a start. Only T20 could have recalibrated the women’s game the way it did but the downside was an entire generation growing up without any red-ball connect. “I don’t think the red ball was used much by the girls since Test cricket stopped,” said leg-spinner Poonam Yadav, who played for Central Zone, but more importantly was part of India's last Test — against South Africa at Mysore — in 2014.

“Somewhere as a result, the skills slipped a bit. You don’t get as much spin or swing with white-ball cricket. You bowl flat because you don’t want to concede runs, but here you need to have more variations to purchase wickets. And all that the batters knew was to hit. Most of the young girls hadn’t bowled 15-20 overs on the trot before this because they had never trained for it.”

'Doing right things for long'

While the tournament may have been an eye opener for many, 25-year-old Mani knew exactly what she was in for despite it being the first time she played days’ cricket since U-19 days. “It’s about doing the right things for a long time,” said Mani, who led South Zone. “Also, this tournament made us stronger, made us concentrate more on our fitness. Because even if you simply stand (under the sun), you need some strength. I hardly got one or two weeks because there were international matches, WPL, etc. But all I did in that time was increase the duration for batting, bowling, everything.”

With the introduction of central contracts and WPL, women’s cricket has undergone a massive makeover in recent years. But there is still some distance to be covered in the longest format. The first wave of change has already been triggered by WPL though.

“Earlier, only one or two girls used to go for sixes, but now more are trying it. In two seasons, we are finally getting a grasp of power-hitting, our understanding of the game is improving,” said Kaur. Yadav agrees. “When we used to play, the class was always there but I felt the game was a bit slow. Now, the change has been drastic in women’s cricket. With T20s and ODIs, the skills aren’t on display as much as in days’ cricket. Bowling 20-25 overs per day, learning to bat long — this is where the inter-zone tournament was such a huge learning experience.”

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