India women face battles at home and abroad

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On International Women’s Day 2020 everything seemed possible. India lined up on March 8 for a World Cup final in front of almost 90,000 spectators. Katy Perry, feminist pop idol, performed to rapturous applause. "Come on, show ’em what you’re worth," boomed the global superstar.

"If you only knew what the future holds," soon followed. A few hours later, as India’s final wicket fell, 85 runs short of their target, little could they have imagined what the future did, in fact, hold.

The coronavirus pandemic swept around the world and sport stopped. Everything possible was done to ensure the swift resumption of men’s sport, or at least lucrative men’s sport. For the women, however, there was barely a phone call to check in.

For almost eight months India’s women remained in near total isolation, as travel between states became both difficult to plan and expensive – too expensive – to accommodate. The first, and only, cricket they’d have before the year end was four hastily-arranged T20s, squeezed between the knockout rounds of the men’s IPL, a 56-match affair.

It would be another four months after that, an entire year in total, before India’s women represented their country again. In that time of no international cricket, the men’s side had played eight Tests and six white-ball matches, on top of the IPL.

Against South Africa, their first series back, India’s women were trounced. The poor preparation, lack of both fitness and team cohesion, as well as some bizarre selection picks, were evident. Covid quickly morphed from having been the reason that women’s cricket was overlooked to a convenient excuse.

"What to do?" asked a seemingly sincere Sourav Ganguly, BCCI President, in an interview with the Indian Sportstar magazine. "We have been living with this deadly virus. […] It is a wrong perception that people have of us not promoting women’s cricket. What can I do?"

Fast forward a few months, with a series against England starting next week, and the only progress appears that the lack of progress is finally being talked about.

First there was the surprise reappointment of Ramesh Powar as head coach, two years after he had departed following a spectacular falling out with India’s current Test and ODI captain, Mithali Raj. Then the noticeable contrast between the salaries of the women’s nationally-contracted players, reduced this year from 22 to 19, and their male peers. And, more recently, the revelation by Telegraph Sport of delayed payments of both World Cup prize money and player salaries, the former dating back more than 14 months.

‘A male chauvinist organisation’

Despite the media buzz, India’s on-field preparation remains poor. The BCCI Secretary, Jay Shah, was the first to announce that India would be playing a Test against England, in England. Only it soon transpired that this was before the ECB knew that they would be doing so. Shah also neglected to say that half the Test would overlap with India’s men featuring in the World Test Championship Final. Nor did he remind us when the last time India’s women had played a Test. Or any of its players a red-ball match, for that matter. The latter, and what might be considered integral preparation for a Test, was during the 2017-18 domestic season. Over three years ago.

Shah, like many of the men at the top of the BCCI administration, has close links to India’s ruling BJP political party. The way in which he goes about his business is a familiar one. That is: quick to claim credit for good news, slow to put in place anything of substance for women’s cricket. A "male chauvinist organisation", according to former women’s Test captain Diana Edulji.

Two years ago, when a BCCI administrative blunder meant its women’s team was stranded on tour in the West Indies without receiving daily allowances, the only coverage came when the error was rectified. One headline ran: "BCCI comes to rescue of women team".

There’s a Catch-22. The BCCI won’t invest properly in its women’s game until they win something: a World Cup maybe, in which they’ve twice been runners-up in the past four years. But as nations like England and Australia continue to plough increasing portions of their budgets into women’s domestic infrastructure, India still haven’t staged a women’s IPL, despite 14 editions of the men’s tournament.

In the same breath that India’s administrators credit the IPL for democratising men’s cricket in India, unlocking its full potential, they claim that there is not enough strength in depth in Indian women’s cricket. It is a vicious cycle.

"Too many leaks. Not enough accountability," says one journalist, wearily. "Too much arbitrariness. Not enough vision. Tests are great, more please. But they’re also an effective smokescreen for the many things that need doing in the long term."

Past v Present

Unfortunately, for the development of women’s cricket in India, it’s not just powerful men standing in its way.

"There is an absolute power grab from the past [women’s] players," says one administrator, describing the make-up of the women’s selection committee. "Because they never experienced or received anything when they played. Now they’re exercising the power they never had."

"Against South Africa, for instance, they arbitrarily dropped players and picked two new players without any experience. There’s no transparency, there’s no structure and there’s no accountability."

"There is a mindset," continues the administrator, "of, ‘when I played, we didn’t get paid anything, so now that you are we are going to set unrealistic expectations. We never had this so we demand this’. It’s completely wrong. And vindictive."

According to some, the power grab extends beyond just past players. "I will request you to revise your opinion of the players," advises one journalist. "The fault lies with these egoistic [women]. Lots of arrogance and insecurity. Little respect for [the] coach and also for each other."

The fractions between the players do indeed appear to be numerous and deep. "They all hate each other," observes one current international cricketer – not an Indian one. It paints an uneasy picture but also, perhaps, an inevitable one. Firstly, India, alongside Pakistan, are the only major cricket nations not to have a recognised players’ body. Collective action is impossible.

For any one female cricketer, it is a fight for survival. Which is also a problem. Behind the accusations of "arrogance" and "lack of respect", there exists a prevailing perception that women should not be strong, that they shouldn’t be seen to be standing up for themselves or challenging the status quo. A male player, by contrast, is expected, if not encouraged, to be both demanding and powerful, with designs on control. The men are leaders, the women arrogant dissenters.

There are a myriad of challenges facing India’s women. But change is happening. Individual players are being given opportunities in lucrative overseas tournaments – five Indian players were recently announced as signings in the upcoming Hundred – and there appears a shift in India’s media too. They’re starting to talk. The women’s team, after all, is just another vehicle to feed the country’s insatiable appetite for the game. And with an organisation such as the BCCI so dependent on its image, if the public is talking then change could, and should, happen. As one player puts it: "If I wanted to get something done for women’s cricket in India, I would create a social media roar. You might not get the cake but shall for sure get the crumbs.” 

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