The "other" Indian team recorded a landmark victory against England in their backyard against all odds on Saturday. India not only outbowled and outbatted England, they did it with little practice. Eight of the playing XI had never played a Test match before and the rest hadn't played one in the last eight years. All their international tours in the last two years had been restricted to the subcontinent. Therefore, to beat England on a greentop after having been brought up on flat tracks on the subcontinent is quite an achievement. India are yet to lose a Test in England.
It was a landmark win in more ways than one. While discussing the first day's play with a fellow cricketer, I spoke of the contrast between the England and Indian women's teams. He argued that the BCCI could not be blamed entirely for the current scenario and that the Indian team was underperforming. It was the oft-repeated argument: why will the board invest more money in women's cricket when the girls are just not able to perform? Never mind the logical fallacies there, an Indian win has hopefully put that argument to rest. There is simply no hiding for the BCCI now. It cannot justify India's absence from Tests anymore. The win proved that India is capable of beating the best. Clearly the team isn't the problem. The system is.
I argued last week that the Indian women's team's performances have dipped over the last few years and held the BCCI accountable for its role in the decline.
A factor in that decline is the lack of international matches. Before the Test in Wormsley, India last played a Test in 2006, the year the BCCI took control of Indian women's cricket. India hosted the World Cup in 2013 but did not play a single international in the two months leading up to the tournament.
As a woman cricketer who has played in every age-group level before and after the Women's Cricket Association of India's (WCAI) merger with the BCCI, let me explain the problems faced by aspiring cricketers in the country.
I first picked up the sport as an eight-year-old in school. I was glad to be offered the chance to learn the game, and lucky because not many schools offer cricket to girls; they are more likely to be offered basketball or athletics instead.
This is the first problem. Women's cricket in India has always been between a rock and a hard place. All other women's sports in India come under the ambit of the Indian government. While the Sports Authority of India might have its flaws, women athletes in sports other than cricket have a clear-cut authority and system to conform to.
Before the merger with the BCCI, women's cricket was managed by the WCAI, an independent board affiliated to the International Women's Cricket Council. Due to the BCCI's refusal to do anything with women's cricket, the women's game was always in a state of limbo, dependent on handouts to keep it running.
I grew up playing for my state at the Under-16 and U-19 levels - in abject conditions. But though lack of funds was a problem, lack of will wasn't. Inter-school and inter-university tournaments were organised with the encouragement of the WCAI.
In 2005, talk of a merger with the BCCI began and it filled me with hope. The days of begging for funds seemed to be over. The BCCI sprang into action after the ICC passed a directive that a member board stood to lose its membership if it did not merge with its respective women's board.
But despite the merger, the bad news kept trickling in for the women's game. The U-16 and inter-zone tournaments were scrapped. All wasn't gloomy, though. The concept of match fees and two-day matches was introduced. The two-day matches, in particular, were a source of great financial joy for the girls. Women's cricket in India, by and large, is a poor girl's sport. Very few from the middle or upper classes take it up, partly because the schools they study in don't offer it, and because women's cricket offers no career.
"With the removal of the U-16 tournament especially, the vital supply line of grassroots cricket was cut off. They say "catch them young", but the BCCI certainly doesn't believe so"
Under the WCAI, the main employers for the women players were Railways and Indian Airlines / Air India. An airline job particularly appealed to me because given my respectable educational qualifications, a Group C or D job in the Railways (such as a clerk, station master, ticket inspector, track inspector) would be a climb-down. However, after the BCCI merger, Indian Airlines stopped recruiting women cricketers citing technicalities.
The two-day format was removed the following year. I saw the number of matches I played per season come down from a minimum of at least 15, irrespective of my team's performance, to a maximum of 10 if my team did well.
With no U-16, U-25 and special trophies to play for, the number of girls dropping out of the system after the U-19 level increased. While we got better travel and accommodation, and had access to better infrastructure and coaching, the number of matches we played reduced drastically. This has had a long-term effect on the performance and standard of the Indian national team.
With the removal of the U-16 tournament, especially, a vital supply line was cut off. Many of the top cricketers on the circuit today have been around before 2006; new young talent has been hard to come by. They say "catch them young", But the BCCI certainly doesn't believe so. The removal of age-group cricket like the U-16, three-day matches and inter-zone tournaments smacks of cost-cutting. It is worth remembering here that the BCCI continues to claim exemption from taxes and from demands for transparency, on the basis that it is a non-profit organisation. Cost-cutting shouldn't be on the agenda of a cash-rich organisation whose founding principle is the "promotion of cricket".
The second problem I faced as a woman cricketer was when I applied to colleges. The BCCI does not recognise university women's cricket. This means universities and colleges do not have an incentive to give preferential admission to cricketers or to form teams. So while the likes of St Stephen's College and Lady Shri Ram College offered sports like chess and judo under the women's sports quota, cricket was ignored. There are few decent colleges offering sports-quota seats for women's cricket. The financial incentive to play (Rs 1500-2500 per match) isn't enough to draw girls from all backgrounds, considering the number of matches you can realistically expect to play in a year is four.
There is no women's equivalent of the Corporate Trophy organised by the BCCI for male cricketers. Corporate houses don't have an incentive to form women's cricket teams either. And due to the BCCI's monopoly over Indian cricket, an independent initiative is unlikely to work. (Think the Indian Cricket League.) Therefore, the two main reasons that would encourage parents to let their child pursue a sport - a chance to study in a good college, or the prospect of securing a job - are eliminated in Indian women's cricket.
The allegations of sexual harassment by a U-19 cricketer against an Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association official in September 2013 brought the absence of protocols within the BCCI into the spotlight. How the matter was handled remains unknown as the BCCI's regulations regarding women's cricket are ambiguous to say the least There is a certain lack of awareness of one's rights, and girls who come from tribal or poor backgrounds are especially vulnerable at a young age. The issue of possible sexual harassment has been neglected by the BCCI. The absence of codified laws and regulations in such situations makes it difficult for girls to know who to approach and how. A clearly defined authority for women-specific issues with relevant jurisdiction is therefore a must for the board.
Until a while ago, a senior woman cricketer in India would play a maximum of 20 domestic games in an entire season. An U-19 cricketer would play an average of ten games per season, including 50-over and T20 formats. After much haggling with the BCCI, the women's wing was able to increase the number of domestic matches played. A state team is now assured at least eight one-dayers and four in T20 per season. It is perhaps testament to how bad things had become that this news was greeted with widespread joy among the women's cricket fraternity. After eight years of false promises, administrative indecision and pariah treatment, an increase of four matches in the annual season seems like deliverance to us.