Seeking the route to the top step
Two ICC event final appearances in three years show how Indian women’s cricket is coming of age. But what would it take to overcome the final barrier? Dropped catches of Alyssa Healy and Beth Mooney early and a nervous batting start in the final probably prompted India captain Harmanpreet Kaur to say they needed to rethink their approach in big games. “If we talk about the last T20 World Cup, we got to the semis, and this time the final. We’re on the right path. Every year we are improving. We just need to think of how to play with focus in the main games. Sometimes we don’t manage that,” she said after the final.
India have improved over the years but Australia and England are still the teams to beat. And unlike in those countries, women’s cricket in India is still not exactly part of the mainstream. India’s senior women’s domestic calendar comprises an inter-state league and a Challenger Trophy in Twenty20 and one-day formats. Apart from that, the BCCI has also been organising a women’s T20 Challenge for three years now. Starting with two teams and just one match in 2018, it is set to expand to four teams and seven matches this season. A BCCI release last month confirmed that the expanded tournament would be played during the week of the IPL playoffs and final. The league stage ends on May 17.
Kaur pins hopes on this tournament to show a way out. “This year, we are hoping for some more games in the women’s challenger. That tournament is very important for us because it is high quality. From there we already got two good players, and hopefully in the upcoming tournaments we can get more.”
This is an area where Australia and England score over India. Australia started the Women’s Big Bash League—an eight team tournament—in 2015, and the game has received a fresh shot of popularity because of that competition. The groundwork starts there even though the national team’s success is something that can’t be controlled. This season WBBL was even moved to a separate time slot ahead of the Big Bash League. England is starting The Hundred where women and men will get equal pay. More importantly, it will ensure women play more games though England already has a 50-over County championship and a three-tier T20 championship. That way, they won’t have to depend on international tournaments alone for quality exposure games. In the 12-month period leading up to the T20 World Cup, India played 17 T20Is, as many as England, and Australia only 14. But add quality competitions like WBBL (59 matches in the 2019-20 season) or the Women’s Cricket Super League (six-team, 32-match T20 league that is being replaced by The Hundred) and there is no surprise the Australians and English are better equipped to cope with the pressure of big matches.
However, women’s cricket in Australia and England has evolved over a century. The first Test series between them was played in 1934-35. Women’s cricket in India had struggled for a few decades and was taken over by the resourceful BCCI only in 2006, transforming the game.
For India, a full-fledged IPL will get them used to playing in front of 60,000 spectators regularly and create a fan following. India is the most important economy in cricket and the right boost in the form of a franchise league could go a long way.
Sunil Gavaskar stressed on this point after the final. “Even if there are not eight teams, a women’s IPL will make a lot of sense. There will be a lot more exposure for women. A lot more talent, which is there but we don’t know at the moment, will come to the fore. And then, as the years go by, Indian women’s team will start winning a lot more trophies,” he told India Today. “To Sourav Ganguly and the BCCI, I would like to say, maybe next year, look at having a women’s IPL because that will unearth lot more talent. The WBBL has given plenty of opportunities to players, even to our players (Smriti Mandhana and Kaur). That is the tournament where you get to play against the best players and learn. That certainly has helped them (Australia) find many more players, just like the IPL has helped them—India men’s team— find many more players.”
Anjum Chopra, who led India to their first ICC tournament final in the 2005 50-over World Cup, however, isn’t sure IPL alone can change India’s approach. “If IPL starts it basically means more matches, more international exposure. Playing more matches helps but I will never say the only solution is a women’s IPL. You also need to work at home. They need to play a lot, whether as an Indian team, as individuals or for other franchises,” she said from Sydney.
India fast bowler Jhulan Goswami, the world’s leading wicket-taker in ODIs, said: “We already have a women’s T20 series on the lines of IPL for three years now. The BCCI is working on it and I am sure a full-fledged women’s IPL is on the cards. About infrastructure and facilities, I don’t think we lack anything.”
“Beating Australia in Australia is very difficult,” said Goswami. “We did it in the league phase and topped our group. No one expected that. We knew Australia would come hard at us in the final. One loss shouldn’t be allowed to define a brilliant campaign for India.” What Goswami wants though is more focus on age-group cricket. “This is the right time to do it. We need more matches in the under-16, -19 and -23 categories so that we have a proper supply line established.”
Former India cricketer Sulakshana Naik, a member of BCCI’s Cricket Advisory Committee, echoed the views of Chopra and Goswami. “Playing with and against foreign players in a league can help our cricketers grow, especially those who are coming up. But we jump to conclusion that we should have a big league. We should instead improve our domestic circuit. Just running behind leagues won’t help. We’ve to focus on grassroots and whether the girls are getting their basics right.”
Chopra said: “The BCCI has been brilliant at providing infrastructure and financial support. The women’s team gets the same support from BCCI as the men’s team and they can go to NCA too. They have also allowed players to play in international leagues,” she said. Chopra feels most of the preparation should be at domestic level. “Many of these players were in the 2017 final (ODI World Cup) and 2018 semi-final losses (T20 World Cup, both to England). So they are acquainted with the pressure. The way forward is to prepare better. There are a lot of domestic club-level matches too. BCCI can’t do anything there; the players need to do that.”