The eight-year gap between England and India women
I'm not sure how the England squad for the last England-India women's Test match was announced, but I'll bet it was pretty different from this time around.
For one thing, the announcement last Monday was made at the top of London's famous Shard building, 72 floors up, with the most unbelievable views of the city stretching out below us. The Shard was not even under construction the last time an England-India women's Test match took place. For another thing, this was the first occasion of its kind: a formal launch event to mark the start of the women's international summer, with the media out in force. It was the kind of launch even Alastair Cook and Peter Moores would envy.
The fact is that English women's cricket looks, and feels, very different to how it did even 12 months ago. Professional contracts. A shiny new fleet of Kia Sportages. Glitzy events to woo the media. And a squad of players who make up the best-paid women's sports team in the UK, and one of the best in the world. That launch at the top of the Shard was a pretty good metaphor for the dizzying heights that English women's cricket has achieved lately.
But what of their opponents? It would be the understatement of the century to say that Indian cricket is not short of money. MS Dhoni is the highest-paid cricketer in the world; cricket is big business there. And yet India are the only remaining major women's international cricket team with no central contracts in place at all. They have played little international cricket in the past three years - and none at all outside Asia since their last series against England in 2012.
When you compare the vast gap between England and India, you suddenly realise that not everything is rosy in international women's cricket. One important manifestation of this gap will likely become apparent this week, when England take on India at Wormsley, in the first non-Ashes women's Test match since 2007. This is rightly being welcomed as an encouraging development, and the BCCI should be praised for agreeing to it. Yet the last time that India women played a Test match was eight whole years ago - way back in August 2006.
England women may have only played in five Tests since then - but two of those have fallen in the last 12 months. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this in the context of a sport where women also play almost no multi-day domestic cricket. Suffice to say that the tactics and the stamina required for Test cricket will be completely foreign to the vast majority of the Indian side. It will be exceptionally difficult for them to adjust.
It is no coincidence that the last women's Test match that featured India was played just a few months after the BCCI had taken control of the women's game. The subsuming of the Women's Cricket Association of India into the BCCI took place only after protracted negotiations, with the administrators of the women's game left with little choice but to surrender control of their sport after the International Women's Cricket Council merged with the ICC. It was felt that if women's cricket was administered by those running the men's game, it would have access to the resources needed to allow it to flourish.
Has this occurred? You tell me. India have played no Test matches in eight years, and very little international cricket at all. Their domestic season is shorter than ever. In 2013, they were knocked out of the World Cup which they were hosting without even progressing beyond the group stages, having suffered a shock defeat to Sri Lanka. Mithali Raj - recently named one of Wisden's Top Five Women's Cricketers of all time, and one of only six women ever to score a Test double-century - should be a global superstar with a profile on par with those of Sarah Taylor and Ellyse Perry. But the BCCI's seeming indifference has prevented that.
In 2006, according to World Cup-based rankings, India were ranked second in the world. Today, they are ranked seventh. If I was going to continue with the Shard metaphor, it is as if, since 2006, Indian women's cricket has been stuck in a lift somewhere around about the 33rd floor, unable to rise any further, watching as other countries progress further and higher around them. The BCCI, surely, must take responsibility for this.
Back in 2006, there was a historic result for the Indians: their maiden Test series victory against England. The result took everyone by surprise, but it was thoroughly deserved. India had clung on for a draw in the first Test in Leicester, finishing eight wickets down on the final evening. Then, in the second Test in Taunton, England collapsed in a heap, were bowled out for 99, and were forced to follow-on. Jhulan Goswami, one of the world's best pace bowlers, took 10 for 78 in the match; and even a century from Charlotte Edwards could not save England from the inevitable. India won by five wickets. It was one of India's greatest moments in international women's cricket.
Three players from that series - Raj, Goswami, and Karu Jain - are returning to England's shores this summer, hoping to repeat their 2006 feat. They will have special reason to hope. Because where women's cricket is concerned, success breeds success. England Women now have professional contracts, vastly more media coverage, and are attracting high-profile sponsorship, at least partly because of their recent two successive Ashes wins and their appearance in four out of the last six global tournament finals. Undoubtedly, if India can somehow win in Wormsley, that would help their cause with the BCCI.
And yet... is that 2006 feat really likely to happen again? Could it happen again, when we now have two teams who are oceans apart in terms of financial support and match experience; when Raj has, as far as I can see, captained no multi-day cricket in the last five years?
Sounds unlikely, doesn't it?
It's been put to me on numerous occasions that women's cricket in India will only gain the full support of the BCCI when India win a World Cup. This is patently untrue. If the ECB had not shown a commitment to developing its elite players over the last decade, there is no way that England would have achieved the success that they have. How can a team be expected win a global tournament when their own cricket board is indifferent?
And it it also unfair. Why should support rely on success in women's cricket any more than it does in the men's game? When England men beat India at home in 2012, did Dhoni take a pay cut? We need to get away from this idea that female cricketers only deserve support when they are winning. We need the BCCI to step up its commitment to women's cricket - and we need that to happen no matter what occurs on the pitch over the next few weeks.
I hope to see lots of people in Wormsley (tickets are just £12 per day when purchased in advance). It will be exciting to see the first international cricket of the new professional era, as pioneered by the ECB. But we should also spare a thought for teams like India, who in this new era are being left far, far behind. We can celebrate progress but we should not get carried away. The battle isn't won yet.
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. She tweets here