Players, administrators, fans, broadcasters, commentators — everyone agrees that the time to up the ante on women’s cricket in India “is yesterday”, as former Australian star Lisa Sthalekar recently said.
And yet. The women’s team, as part of their preparation for the 2022 World Cup in New Zealand, were scheduled to tour England in September 2020; to play Australia in a five-game series in January this year; and to tour Sri Lanka in February. The England and Sri Lanka tours were cancelled; the one to Australia postponed to “sometime next year”.
Each time, it was the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) that pulled the plug; at no time was any explanation proffered. All this, during a period when the men played an edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in the UAE, toured Australia over a two-month period to play all three formats of the game, then played host to England also over all three formats, and are now engaged in the next edition of the IPL.
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The women finally got to play a hastily organised home series of ODIs and T20s against South Africa, and got thrashed in both formats. The team, its coach WV Raman said, needed to “improve on all fronts”, that they suffered from “mental fatigue” and “lacked cricketing fitness”.
How? When the women stepped onto the field on March 7 this year, it was the first time they were playing competitive cricket since the final of the Women’s T20 World Cup way back in March 2020. It was also their first ODI since November 2019.
Everyone agrees that the women should be playing more, yet no one knows when they will play next. The question of why women’s cricket is so starved of oxygen is an Escher staircase, where every argument meets itself coming in the opposite direction.
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Sponsors say they are not showing interest because there is no “product” — in other words, no calendar of events. The BCCI, through its ventriloquists in the media, makes the argument that women’s cricket is not commercially viable. No audience, therefore no advertiser interest, therefore no cricket.
The “no audience” argument is the most risible. Broadcasters say that each iteration of the World Cup, in both formats, has seen viewership spike twofold or more. The ICC’s official press release said the final of the 2020 World Cup was the most watched event in the history of women’s cricket and the second most-watched event in all cricket history after the 2019 men’s World Cup — and that a whopping 35% of the total viewership for the tournament came from India.
Even BCCI president and former India captain Sourav Ganguly noted the record viewership and, in a media interview on November 8, 2020, said, “Women’s cricket all around the world has taken off.” Pointing out that India had reached the final of the 2017 ODI World Cup and the 2020 T20 World Cup, he said, “it’s very important that we continue with the talent, it’ll only get bigger.”
And yet Ganguly, by virtue of the post he holds, is privy to the decision to cancel three scheduled tours. He is a part of the organising team that made a hash of the recent India-SA series that saw the ridiculous situation of players assembling in Lucknow without knowing who was playing and who wasn’t, because the team had not been picked till five days before the start of the series. See what I mean about the Escher staircase?
In the history of any sport comes a pivotal moment when a game either takes off, or dies for want of oxygen. In men’s cricket, that point came in 1987, when India, as defending champions, jointly hosted the fourth edition of the World Cup with Pakistan and Sri Lanka.With Reliance Industries stepping in as prime sponsor, the 1987 World Cup bcame both a sporting and a commercial success. In history’s rearview mirror, that year looms as the point that kickstarted the process of India taking over from the established powers as the new financial powerhouse of the men’s game.
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On the distaff side, a similar pivotal moment occurred in 2005, when the Mithali Raj-led team reached the final of the 8th edition of the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup in South Africa. The Indian women’s team reached the final again in 2017. In the T20 version introduced in 2009, Indian team were semi-finalists thrice, and was on the losing side of an enthralling final in 2020. A tick for the talent box, a tick for the audience interest box, a tick for the broadcaster interest box, and yet, more games are cancelled than are actually played.
A full-fledged women’s IPL has been mooted as a solution but while that can help, it is not a silver bullet, says former India captain and administrator Shubhangi Kulkarni. “Look at the origin stories of so many male players, who learned the basics playing street cricket,” she said on phone. “Young girls don’t have that option — you don’t need me to explain why.” She recalls that in her school, there was no cricket ground, so she ended up playing hockey, and even represented Maharashtra before taking to cricket at the age of 16.
“We used to have Under-16 tournaments when the Women’s Cricket Association ran the game,” she points out. “There was a clear pathway then — you play in school, you play U-16, then U-19, the talented ones rise to the top and get to play for their states, and then the country; they get employment in the Railways and in Air India, which used to have a sports quota.”
Once the women’s wing of cricket was merged with the men’s wing in 2006, per the diktat of the International Cricket Council, the BCCI abolished the U-16 tournament. “That takes away the incentive for young girls to take to cricket — there is now no clear pathway to the top,” says Kulkarni. This is an argument that ace sportswriter Sharda Ugra also made in a recent podcast hosted by journalist Amit Varma, where she said the key to understanding sport in India was to realise that “In India, sport is linked to livelihood, not leisure.” Ergo, if there is no clear route to economic independence, the young are actively discouraged from playing.
In 2016, Kulkarni submitted a vision document to then BCCI president Anurag Thakur, who was instrumental in putting the national women players on contract. “It had four parts: grassroots development at the school and age group level; a structured domestic competition; a robust international schedule; and managing people after their playing days are over by opening up avenues in coaching, umpiring, broadcasting etc.”
Thakur was swept out of office as part of a Supreme Court diktat, and the “vision document” went with him. And there is this: on March 8, 2021, BCCI secretary Jay Shah pulled out all stops to mark International Women’s Day. In a tweet, he said he “was pleased” to announce that the Indian women would play a Test against England later this year.
On the occasion of #InternationalWomensDay, I’m pleased to announce that #TeamIndia @BCCIWomen will play a one-off Test match against @ECB_cricket later this year. The women in blue will be donning the whites again 🙏🏻 🇮🇳— Jay Shah (@JayShah) March 8, 2021
One. Single. Test. When it happens — if it happens — it will be only the 11th Test the legendary Mithali Raj — the player with the most runs in international cricket — will have played since she made her debut back in 2002, and the first Test she will play after 2014.
As for preparing for the World Cup in 2022, well, the women might tour Australia early next year. Inshallah.
Prem Panicker is a Bengaluru-based journalist.