March 8 last year, International Women's Day, was box office for women's cricket. India's maiden appearance in a T20 World Cup final, against defending champions Australia, drew 86,174 spectators at the MCG - the most ever at a women's or men's T20 World Cup final and for a women's sporting event in Australia.
The significance of it all had barely sunk in before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Global sport screeched to a halt by the close of March. While Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan all played at least one women's series apiece in the 12 months since, India played none. By the time they face South Africa in Lucknow on March 7 they will be just a day short of a full year during which they have not played any international matches. The reasons why are a reflection of many ills, most of which have afflicted the women's game in India for decades now.
India's women cricketers cut their teeth in international cricket in October 1976, three years after the formation of the Women's Cricket Association of India (WCAI), which became the custodian of the women's game in the country. Until January 1977, India played eight Tests, including two overseas. An inactive spell of nearly 12 months followed.
The next time they took the field, in January 1978, it was for their World Cup debut, also their first ODI. India finished last in that four-team competition but the tournament itself was significant as the first international cricket championship of any kind to be held in India, a decade before the country hosted its first men's World Cup.
India women wouldn't play any cricket for 54 months after that 1978 World Cup - largely due to an acute cash crunch at the WCAI, which was founded by volunteers and those from the political fraternity. India returned to action with the 1982 ODI World Cup and played 35 international matches until July 1986, the games fairly evenly spaced out in that period. Then all cricket stalled for them for 1644 days, or another four and a half years, their longest gap between two international matches.
"That [break] was horrible," remembers Diana Edulji, India's captain for the best part of the period between 1978 and 1993, and for nearly three years a member of the Committee of Administrators, appointed by India's Supreme Court, that ran the BCCI between 2017 and 2019. "We missed the 1988 World Cup in Australia despite being in a training camp before that, because the sports ministry had withdrawn our entry from the tournament without us or the association [WCAI] knowing." A disagreement between the WCAI secretary and the government ministry of youth, sports and women and child development over guidelines issued by the latter that the WCAI was expected to follow (because it was receiving funding from the government at the time), is understood to have prompted the withdrawal from the World Cup, but an official explanation was never given to the players.
"We had to catch up a lot because the other teams had moved far ahead," Edulji says. "It took us time when we got back. That is why in our era we couldn't perform well in the World Cups."
Gargi Banerji, who debuted under Edulji as India's youngest player ever - male or female - at 15, agrees. "We were way better prepared to put up a fight in the 1988 World Cup than in the 1978 one. That gap of four-plus years killed the possibility, and the careers of several talented players."
The WCAI merged with the BCCI in November 2006, a year after the ICC made mergers between all national boards and their women's bodies mandatory. The BCCI was the last of the national boards of the top eight countries to start administering women's cricket in its country, and the absorption of women's cricket into the larger fold happened at a snail's pace in India. Against the backdrop of the delay in integrating the workings of women's cricket at the level of the state associations came another hiatus for the players, stretching 424 days, from March 2007 to May 2008. It remains the longest India have gone without playing an international game since the BCCI took over.
The current 364-day gap is India's longest between two international matches since then. Save for Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, who debuted in 1999 and 2002 respectively, none of the players from India's 2020 T20 World Cup contingent or their squads for the upcoming series against South Africa, had prior first-hand knowledge of what a gap year looks like.
This hiatus is unlike any Raj and Goswami have experienced before, though. For starters, the security accorded by annual retainers at a time when the players have not been able to turn out for their country was unthinkable in the era before professionalisation. The BCCI, the richest and most powerful cricket board in the world, has to its credit, since the merger, bettered infrastructure for its female cricketers. It has improved the quality of grounds, upgraded travel essentials, introduced match fees, daily allowances and central contracts and announced pensions for its retired female cricketers. It has allowed its women players to participate in overseas competitions, and launched a tournament that is understood to be a precursor to an IPL-style women's league.
The 2010s were a productive - and critical - phase for women's cricket administration in India, not least because of the impressive on-field results of the national team. Among the highlights was a maiden series win in Australia in 2016 and a breakout runners-up finish at the ODI World Cup the following year. A first appearance in eight years in the knockouts of a T20 World Cup then came in the 2018 edition of the competition, though the format wasn't deemed their strong suit.
India made the final of a T20 triangular series featuring England and Australia in February last year. The same young squad (with the addition of a 16th member) carved out an unbeaten run to the final of the T20 World Cup in February and March, beating favourites Australia in the tournament opener. Their campaign culminated in an 85-run hiding but on the whole it bolstered India's stature as world-beaters in the making. The pandemic then brought their momentum to a halt.
India aren't the only women's team to have not played for so long. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand too haven't had a game since the T20 World Cup in Australia. Ireland, USA, Netherlands and PNG haven't played since the T20 World Cup Qualifier in September 2019. And Zimbabwe's first series in nearly two years was called off after just one game due to Covid-19-enforced flight restrictions. Worse, nine of these ten teams are slated to compete in the 2022 ODI World Cup Qualifier in four months' time, with only India among them having earned direct qualification to the tournament proper.
At the MCC cricket committee's virtual meeting last month, the disproportionately low amount of international women's cricket played compared to the men's game since the start of the pandemic was discussed. The concerns raised echoed the 2020 UN Women brief, which said that the pandemic has exposed how, in the face of slashed revenues across the entire ecosystem, organisations instinctively lean towards prioritising investments in "traditional" sports - meaning men's sports.
In the situation the Indian team finds itself in now, the absence of an independent players' mouthpiece has not helped. "The fact that the best women's players in India haven't played for more than a year is hugely disappointing," Tom Moffat, the CEO of the Federation of International Cricketers Associations (FICA), says. "From our perspective, it's critical for the growth of the game and safeguarding of player interests that players have a voice and that they're represented collectively through a players' association."
"If you look at the most sophisticated team sports around the world, including cricket, like Australia and England, many of the most developed sports are the ones where players are best protected," Moffat says. "A strong players' association is the best way that we know to reach fair outcomes, and now with what's going on in the world at the moment, especially for the women's game."
An additional challenge facing India, and the women's game at large, needs tackling in the immediate future. "Over the coming months, if there isn't renewed focus on the women's game and ensuring greater volume of cricket and exposure across more countries globally, a very foreseeable outcome is that there'll be less eyeballs watching," Moffat says. "Therefore, the reality is, there's going to be potentially less fan interest and commercial interest in the game. And we know the commercial side of things is really important to sustaining the game longer term and to enabling it to grow across more countries."
On March 8, last year, for the third time, India came within touching distance of their maiden world title. Win or lose the series opener against South Africa today, they will feel somewhat relieved that their year without cricket is finally behind them. More than the memory of the defeat to Australia a year ago, their anguish at the eroded momentum of their recent world-tournament finishes is likely to linger.