Mithali Raj: India women cricketers 'anxious', 'don't know for what we're training'
"Sometimes we do feel there's no sense of purpose if we don't have competitive cricket or any international series, even domestic"
India ODI captain Mithali Raj feels that the national team's players have been grappling with "anxiety" and a lack of "sense of purpose". This comes even as the players look for any "competitive cricket or any international series, even domestic for that matter" in the Covid-19-affected world.
India, runners-up at the T20 World Cup in Australia that ended in March, have not regrouped since, with the BCCI pulling out of the tour of England in July-August and the country's Covid-19 caseload now second-highest globally.
Besides, although the Indian board had announced that a three-team Women's T20 Challenge would be held in the UAE between November 1 and 10, ESPNcricinfo understands that the BCCI is still some way from finalising overseas participants for the competition. The fate of the proposed bilateral series against South Africa and West Indies, too, remains unclear, with the postponement of the 2021 ODI World Cup further shoving India women's international calendar into uncertainty.
"There's been this anxiety about what's the future, what the future tournaments are because right now we don't know for what we're training," Raj told moderator Lisa Sthalekar during an ICC 100% Cricket virtual discussion. "There needs to be a purpose. Before, we used to plan for any international series if it is an away-going [tour], so players would accordingly prepare. And if it's a home series we prepared accordingly, but now we don't know why we train.
"So, sometimes we do feel there's no sense of purpose if we don't have competitive cricket or any international series, even domestic for that matter."
Having retired from T20Is in September last year, Raj's last international appearance came in November during the ODI series against hosts West Indies. She was due to play the knockouts of the inter-state senior women's one-day league for her domestic side Railways in late-March but the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to that.
While top-level women's international cricket will return on Monday - hosts England take on West Indies in the first of five T20Is in Derby - Raj said that resumption of training has thrown up new challenges for the Indians.
"Since we are contracted players, that's our job, so being in the bio bubble - if that's what gets us going in terms of the matches, I think as players we are okay with being in the bubble and training and preparing ourselves for the game. Somewhere we need to do a little bit of adjustments to get the matches going."Mithali Raj
"But one positive is that things are slowly improving in terms of access to the facilities; but again, there are a few changes in terms of all the training facilities work on time slots. Like, earlier, we would just walk in and start batting and we would have some good 10-15 net bowlers and we could bat for one to two hours," she said. "But, now, you have to go in during the time slot you're given, and maybe the net bowlers are reduced to just two or three of them. So these are the changes as current players we're accepting. But I think [we're] having an optimism that at some point we'll have matches, and that's why all of us are still into our fitness training trying to keep up to the standards before we were in the lockdown."
As such, women's cricket in India has had several issues since the end of the T20 World Cup. The national team has been without a selection committee since the world tournament, the competition also officially marking the end of their long-time manager Trupti Bhattacharya's tenure. Saba Karim's departure as the board's general manager (cricket operations) in July further meant India women are without both an administrative as well as a managerial pointsperson. The tenure of their head coach, WV Raman, who was appointed on a two-year contract in December 2018, is also nearing its close.
While the announcement of the T20 Challenge in August promised game-time for both the centrally contracted players as well as many others, it ruled out at least four top-flight India internationals from the upcoming Women's Big Bash League in Australia. By extension, the availability of several international stars, especially those from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England, for the T20 Challenge has been rendered close to impossible.
When asked if India's contracted players had concerns over the seclusion that life in a biosecure bubble brings with it, Raj said that flexibility and looking after the inexperienced crop of players, including Shafali Verma, is the need of the hour.
"Since we are contracted players, that's our job, so being in the biobubble - if that's what gets us going in terms of the matches - I think as players we are okay with being in the bubble and training and preparing ourselves for the game. Somewhere we need to do a little bit of adjustments to get the matches going," Raj said. "As far as the mental set-up is concerned, we did have a few sessions with a sports psychologist: talking to the players, as a team [too], we were on calls. Those things do help [because] as seasoned, as senior players we understand how to tune ourselves. But the most important thing in the current situation is the young players or the players who are in the age-groups, who've just made their debut. For them it's even more important to settle their anxieties and anxiousness they develop thinking about their future.
"If you're a young player, you'd definitely want to know, 'I just made it into the Indian team; what's the next opportunity I will get?' These are questions that the young players usually go through. Not everyone still has access to training facilities... Again, how do you prep such young players? That's where the support staff and sports psychologist and come into play, to give them a lot of positivity and keep their hopes us [so that] they keep training."
Raj said while logistical challenges facing the BCCI remain a concern as far as ensuring playing time for its women cricketers go, physical reassembly of the players is paramount to ensuring India Women's return to action.
"I believe so [that things need to be changing]. We do have regular calls with the BCCI officials to see what we can plan in the future. Then again, a lot of these itineraries depend on the situation in the country. Like, in India, there are still a lot of cases; we are actually on the rise in terms of cases, so it's very difficult for the board to again get the girls going because all of us come from different parts of the country and there are some amount of risks involved in travelling.
"Getting so many girls to have a camp is something the BCCI is looking into, trying to organise if they can. It may be a series or some sort of a camp in terms of fitness, so that the girls regroup again. It is very important; I understand that's there's been a good four or five months' gap since the T20 World Cup in March and now we're into September.
"We have been in touch with the support staff and players on calls. But we sort of gel only when we meet. And I've seen that the WBBL is happening on time, but with some rules and regulations which is paramount. West Indies are in England for a series. Let's see how these things get on. Probably that will give us some idea of organising an international series in the coming months for India."
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo