There seems to be a kind of jinx that’s latched its ugly claws on to women’s cricket in India. The axing of India’s star batter Mithali Raj from the team in the final stages of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) World Cup T20 was yet another sorry episode plaguing the progress of women’s cricket in the country.
Post her ouster from the team, Raj went on to lambast Committee of Administrators member Diana Edulji and coach Ramesh Powar. In an email sent to the powers that run the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the veteran cricketer poured her heart out saying she felt deflated, depressed and let down. Her manager was the first to vent her spleen on
social media by calling skipper Harmanpreet Kaur a ‘manipulative, lying, immature, undeserving captain,’ accusing that the women’s team believed in “politics not sport”.
For the second time, in two consecutive cricket world cup tournaments, the team performed exceedingly well in the group stages only to stumble at the final block. In the 2017 ICC World Cup (One Day), the ladies finished as runners up and lost to England in the semi-final in the recently concluded ICC World T20 championship in the West Indies. After having thrashed eventual champions Australia in the league phase, the team could not find closure in the semi’s on a pitch that suited them.
Post the 2017 ODI World Cup, the team bandwagon which looked like one that was poised to march ahead suffered a setback when team coach Tushar Arothe resigned earlier this year. With twelve months to go on his contract, the former Baroda player citied personal reasons for his exit. The rumour mills hinted that Arothe became a victim of star power and that certain senior members of the team had put pressure on him to take the ultimate step.
The team looked like a rudderless ship in Arothe’s absence with dips in their performance. The BCCI roped in former India off spinner Powar to take charge of the women’s team as coach in August this year, his brief lasting till the end of November. Raj’s latest outburst against Edulji and Powar has now put the team, which was marching steadily, a few steps back.
While watching Raj bat in the group stage of the T20 World Cup (when she cracked two back to back fifties) it was apparent that she was existing on a different planet than the rest of the team. Walking back to the dugout after her last, stellar innings against Ireland where she top-scored with 51 runs, she sat looking forlorn, a bit away from the rest of her comrades with a distant, vacant look.
Her demeanour made it noticeable that there was something wrong with her state of mind which became obvious when she was axed from the rest of the matches in the tournament. The fact that the team management did not provide a reason for dropping Raj, made the situation a bit tricky fuelling speculation of disharmony in the team. It was clear that Raj did not fit in the plans devised by the skipper and the coach. It was, in a way, a nudge for the veteran Hyderabad batter to announce her exit from the shortest format of the game.
Unlike what happens in Australia, the Indian cricket culture is very different when it comes to axing senior stars from the team. Indians tend to wait for the veterans to announce their exit, at their preferred time, irrespective of the need to the team. Many star cricketers have continued to trudge past their ‘sell by’ date irrespective of their form and fitness. In the case of Raj, the gamble of playing a younger player did not work in favour of the team and they lost
the match. Had India won, the story would have been different.
While one is not hinting that Raj should call it a day, it is pertinent to go back in Indian cricket history and take a look at examples set by two of the country’s finest batsmen - Vijay Merchant and Sunil Gavaskar. When Merchant was asked why he retired after scoring a magnificent 154 against an English attack led by Brian Statham at Delhi in 1951, he said it is better to leave the stage when people as why and not ‘why not’! Gavaskar too announced his exit from Test cricket after playing an innings of a lifetime - scoring 96 on a bunsen burner in Bangalore against Pakistan in 1987.
Senior cricketers not fitting in the game plan of younger captains in India and continuing to play is an age old story with very few exceptions. The way former skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni is an integral part of Virat Kohli’s One Day team is a unique example how the present team management and the selectors are using the services of (arguably) the most experienced and successful Indian captain in the shorter formats of the game.
Coming back to women’s cricket in India, it would make a lot of sense for the BCCI to get Kaur, Powar and Raj together to discuss and clear whatever issues that may exist. Women’s cricket, constantly under the shadow of men’s cricket, cannot afford to keep having controversies which will eventually have a negative result on the progress of the game in India.
Women’s cricket needs to have a champion — an experienced senior, with no agenda, who will mentor them and act as a guide at this crucial stage. There are many former India players like Shantha Rangaswamy and Shubhangi Kulkarni (to name a few) who can get a lot of value on the table and steer the ladies out of the mess they have created for themselves.
Like what was achieved by former BCCI president NKP Salve, who brought the two legends Gavaskar and Kapil Dev together and thrashed out whatever issues they may have had, the BCCI should get former players of stature to play the role of the ‘champion’ to beat the jinx and get the ladies back on track. Is BCCI listening?
(The writer is a former Cricket Club of India captain and Bombay University cricketer)