Over the course of more than ten years, whenever the BCCI announced its annual contracts for its domestic players, a snatch of conversation was always heard between officials and journalists. "This is too much, yaar - do you really think players in X or Y deserve to get paid so much?" X and Y being the weakest teams in domestic cricket. As time passed, the names varied. Goa featured regularly; several times, so did Vidarbha - Ranji champions today, imagine! More often recently, Tripura were called out.
No one mentioned the women, because of course, Indian female cricketers didn't even get contracts. This week, all of a sudden with the stroke of a pen, India's top-flight women cricketers became the highest-earning in the world. Before Wednesday, Australia and England were the best paymasters in women's cricket. Six-time world champions, Australia's top-paid international women earn A$80,000 (US$62,500 approx) each - the amount including the maximum WBBL retainer fee. The highest England women salaries are pegged at £50,000 ($69,000) a year. In 2018, India's Grade A women players - Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami, Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana - will earn Rs 50 lakhs each (about $76,750), finally reaping the benefits of playing for the richest cricketing nation on the planet.
What wouldn't you give to overhear the Indian women discussing their new contracts? Would they be astonished at how quickly circumstances have changed? Or annoyed at not being paid on par with the men? Discussions about equal pay for men and women have echoed longer and louder in the world across all paid vocations, not merely sport, and they are far from over. Unequal pay is fundamentally unfair, but it would be safe to bet that India's women cricketers are not fretting about parity yet. It has taken them almost nine years to even get "mainstreamed" into the BCCI ecosystem. India was the last Full-Member country to offer its women cricketers central contracts, as late as October 2015.
A heartbreaking loss in the 2017 World Cup final gave the Indian women their first flush of heady, concentrated public attention. These larger contracts will now secure their careers and livelihood. For the first time in ages, the women now have a sustained playing calendar. Along with the contracts, pressure for performance - from employers, the playing community and fans - will soon follow. Indian women's cricket is now making up for its barren decade, but these new contracts are but a slice of their real life. The pay raise forms only a safety blanket; for the women's game in India, the net needs to be widened and its base broadened - at speed.
Former India captain and BCCI Committee of Administrators member Diana Edulji explains the raises. "The girls are doing well, we need to recognise them, give them the comfort and security levels…"
"You need to build up the women's game still, you have to market the game well, the players have to do well and win some championships, then you can close the gap slowly and steadily, but not at this stage" Diana Edulji, a member of the Committee of Administrators and former India captain
There has been a rise in the daily match fees for women at every level in domestic cricket: the senior-most player in an XI earns Rs 12,500 (about $192) per day, and the reserves in the junior ranks Rs 2750 per day. Edulji says, "In domestic cricket, we thought if we could increase match fees, we could attract more girls to come and play cricket. We need to help out girls coming from small towns, they have to be guided and nourished." An Under-16 event has been introduced. Once the series against Australia is over, there will be specialist camps at the National Cricket Academy for pace bowlers, spinners and wicketkeepers, and a talent hunt will be launched around the country, particularly the north-east.
Indian women's cricket must sprint to catch up in the long-distance race that the game now is around the world. They remain in the eye of the public at all times - no more match days without television coverage. The tenders being floated for the March 27 e-auction of the BCCI media rights bundles the men's, women's and domestic game together. Being visible via television, Edulji says is mandatory. "When the girls are doing well, we can't then cut them off completely from public view."
The disparity amongst the men's and women's contracts raised quite a stir on social media, and the BCCI was criticised for the highest women's Grade A contract (Rs 50 lakhs) being half the value of the lowest men's Grade C one (Rs 1 crore). Edulji says, "At the moment there cannot be parity. You need to build up the women's game still, you have to market the game well, the players have to do well and win some championships, then you can close the gap slowly and steadily, but not at this stage."
In a final aside, for those interested, in September 2017, a BCCI finance committee featuring all warring parties discussed the pay raise for women. A BCCI official proposed that the men and women have identical pay slabs. Another opposed the upgrade in the women's contracts - because the women didn't really earn any money for the board. The meeting was truncated in the wake of some legal wrangling and has not been held since.
Six months later, the middle ground arrived at over the new Indian women's contracts appears to work just fine.