England tour cancelled, T20 Challenge in doubt, no selection panel: What's next for India women?

On several fronts things have stalled for the women's game in India amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
India pulled out of England tour because of the growing threat posed by the pandemic

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It should have been a busy year for Indian women's cricket. There was the promise of a lot of action after India's maiden run to the T20 World Cup final in March - an expanded four-team Women's T20 Challenge followed by a tour of England for players to get back into the ODI groove ahead of next year's World Cup - but Covid-19 put paid to that. "Even nature has started conspiring against women's cricket," Shanta Rangaswamy, the former India captain who is also part of the BCCI's Apex Council, told ESPNcricinfo. What about efforts to get things moving, though?
What's the status of the Women's T20 Challenge?
A potential clash with the Women's Big Bash League after the rejigging of the IPL calendar might force the Women's T20 Challenge to be shelved in its entirety this year if the BCCI is unable to host it outside its traditional slot: on the sidelines of the IPL, which will now be held in the UAE between September 19 to November 8. The WBBL is scheduled for a run between October 17 and November 29.
Clarity on the fate of the T20 Challenge might arrive only after the IPL Governing Council meets. The availability of overseas stars is a concern anyway, and ESPNcricinfo understands that - pending clearances from the BCCI - at least three India players could also be WBBL-bound. The seasoned ones among them are likely to line up for new franchises and one might be in for a debut.
It is going to take some time because this needs following of protocol as interviews will need to be taken by a committee as per the BCCI's new constitution, and this will have to be cleared by them, and it's very difficult to do it without a face-to-face meeting
Sourav Ganguly on appointing a selection panel for India women
Given India haven't played since the T20 World Cup final on March 8 and may not play now until January next year, when they tour Australia for a bilateral ODI series, the WBBL could possibly be the only opportunity for at least a handful of their players to play any top-flight cricket this year.
Selection panel: 'It is going to take some time'
There is no selection panel for the women's team since January this year. The five-member Hemlata Kala-led panel, which was handed an extension in October last year, officially finished its term on January 22, after the final of the quadrangular series featuring India A, India B, Thailand and Bangladesh in Patna. Earlier that month, the Indian board had invited applications from former national players to fill up the positions, with the deadline set on January 24 - the age limit was 60, representation at the international level was mandatory, and candidates must have retired at least five years previously. Former India batter Jaya Sharma, one of the applicants, however said that there's been no response from BCCI as yet. "None of the applicants, including myself, seem to have heard back from the BCCI since," Sharma told ESPNcricinfo.
And nothing might happen in a hurry either, according to BCCI president Sourav Ganguly. "The BCCI will start making the appointments [in due course of time] because given there's no cricket at the moment, and the complete lockdown, and we not being able to go to [the board headquarters in] Mumbai," Ganguly told ESPNcricinfo. "It is going to take some time because this needs following of protocol as interviews will need to be taken by a committee as per the BCCI's new constitution, and this will have to be cleared by them, and it's very difficult to do it without a face-to-face meeting.
"Since there is no women's cricket at the moment till October, I think we will get it done before that."
According to the board's constitution, a three-member Cricket Advisory Committee is in place to pick the men's national selection committee, but no such provision is in place for the women's panel.
It is, however, worth noting that conducting interviews online is an option, and has been availed by several candidates during the appointment of the current men's and women's national team head coaches; the BCCI, too, has conducted its business via online meetings for the past few months.
An ECB proposal turned down
India had a tour of England for a bilateral limited-overs series scheduled for July-August this year. That couldn't happen, but the ECB had suggested tweaking it into a tri-series, also involving South Africa, tentatively in September. But it was cancelled after the BCCI opted to pull out.
ESPNcricinfo has learnt that the Indian board withdrew primarily because - although never confirmed in an official statement - of the worsening Covid-19 situation in India. The ECB, however, is understood to have been prepared to cover costs for India's accommodation and travel, including a charter flight if required, as the English board has done for the West Indies and Pakistan men's teams currently touring the UK.
It is unclear if concerns over players getting adequate pre-tour training played a part in the cancellation. The BCCI is expected to organise a biosecure training camp in Ahmedabad for the men's team ahead of their tour of Australia in December, according to an Indian Express report. With a women's ODI World Cup scheduled in New Zealand in February-March, one wonders if the board has let go a chance for its women - especially ODI stalwarts Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, who haven't played international cricket since early November last year - to get some much-needed game time under their belts.
Wanted: a dedicated pointsperson for women's cricket
Following the retirement of Ratnakar Shetty, who had been in charge of the women's game during his tenure as the BCCI general manager (game development) until March 2018, the responsibility of handling women's cricket fell to Saba Karim, adding to his managerial duties in cricket operations. A role that has long warranted dedicated personnel responsible for affairs related to the women's game has yet again come up for debate with Karim's resignation last week and the BCCI inviting applications for Shetty's post - not Karim's - after over two years.
"This [enforced] break seems a good time to consider a distinctive head who would only be in charge of all things women's cricket," a former selector told ESPNcricinfo. "They all have [the last three general managers], including Dr [MV] Sridhar, no doubt taken women's cricket forward. But given the profile of the national team has grown manifold in the past three years alone, the A tours now taking place, and an inaugural [women's] Under-19 World Cup next year, the responsibilities are plenty.
"You need someone with the vision to make women's cricket more popular, increase grassroots investments, make sure there are dedicated coaches and support at all levels, and the feeder line for the senior team is well-nourished."
Another former selector noted, "If there's a dedicated NCA faculty of trainers, coaches and other staff for female cricketers, India would be world-beaters."

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo