Two pillars of strength
It is raining cats and dogs in Potchefstroom. The Indian women's team couldn't care less. They are just happy the rain came down after they had beaten New Zealand comprehensively in the semifinal, to reach their first ever final. The music is on full blast, several players are dancing and yelling, while one is dispatched to brew up some hot masala chai. In the background, kicking back and briefly enjoying the moment, are two senior women, who have played an equally important role in the team's success.
Sudha Shah, the coach and Shubhangi Kulkarni, secretary of the Women's Cricket Association of India (WCAI), have been the pillars from which the girls have derived most of their strength.
Shah and Kulkarni, good friends from their playing days, both former captains of India, came together as a team two years ago. Till then, the WCAI had been the poorer version of the body that ran the men's game. There was plenty of petty politicking, there were strong rivalries on zonal and team lines, and things simply were not moving in the right direction. At least the men's board was financially well off; the same could never be said about the women's association. Yet for the first time in years, India's home series against England was televised. Mandira Bedi - you may not like her antics on television - cashed in on her popularity, joined forces with Kulkarni. One of the first results of that partnership was a sponsorship for one series. Soon, for the first time the team had a long-term sponsor. Sahara, sponsors of the men's team, came forward with a three-year deal for the women's team, something unimaginable thus far.
But both Kulkarni and Shah have braved lot of rough tides to reach the present smooth sail.
"Anything we wanted was given to us"
Kulkarni hated it when the joke went around cricket circles as she took over as secretary of the WCAI. People called her the female Dalmiya, and she is anything but that. Soft spoken, professional, polite to a fault, sincere and hardworking, whether in her role as director of a leading sports goods company, or as secretary of the Indian women's cricket association, she is anything but Dalmiya.
Shah is quick to acknowledge the role Kulkarni has played in the team's success. "Anything we wanted was giving to us by the association," she told Cricinfo from the team hotel in Potchefstroom. "All she [Kulkarni] wanted from us is that we concentrate on the cricket, and win. We owe her a lot. That fact that she has been running the show made a great difference. She gave us the confidence and the support we needed."
Shah has personally ignored the past to continue building the team. The last time around, when India left for World Cup in 2000, Shah was the coach. Yet somehow, by the time the team reached the Hagley Oval, Christchurch, for their first match against South Africa, she was relegated to "cricket manager", thanks to some typical machinations within the association. Refusing to lament about the past Shah is happy living in the present. "It was very unprofessional last time. This time we've gone about it well. Off the field and on it, our team is more prepared. We paid a lot of attention to our fitness and our fielding and that has really paid off. The girls getting fit has also made them much more positive in their approach and outlook. All these factors came together well for us."
"She's the best person to bring out the best from a team"
Shah has never been the overbearing kind. You may know her for years, and never once hear her raise her voice. But don't be fooled. She's no softie. When she's unhappy, you'll hear about it, but quietly, and directly.
"I have always been very confident of Shah's knowledge of cricket and her ability to bring out the best in the team," Kulkarni says. "When we were still playing I had seen her work with the Tamil Nadu team and the South Zone team. I've always felt she's the best person to bring out the best from a team, and apart from her knowledge as a player, this is the one thing you look for in a leader or a coach. She has a very good judgment of players and people. Overall she has a good brain for strategy. She doesn't talk too much, but when she speaks you know she's going to talk sense."
One of the keys to the Kulkarni-Shah partnership is that each knows exactly what the other person's role is. "I leave all the cricketing decisions to her. As a former player I make some suggestions, but I believe she knows the game better than me," adds Kulkarni. "The final decision on anything cricketing is hers. When she is taking care of the team, I don't have to worry about anything. This leaves me to think about administrative matters. As a secretary it's great to have her around. She knows her job, she sticks to it, and we don't tread on each others' toes."
This delineation of roles has served the team well and the results have just started to come.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo.