Women's cricket in India has been making headlines since India made the finals of the 2017 50-over World Cup and the 2020 T20 World Cup. By the end of 2021, India would have played two Tests after a gap of almost seven years: One just ended, in England, and there's another lined up, a pink-ball Test - the second for women - in Australia in September. The BCCI has also been tapping talent with the T20 Challenge that is played alongside the IPL playoffs' week every year.
All of that would make it appear that women's cricket in India is heading in the right direction. However, Saba Karim, who was until December the BCCI's general manager for cricket operations, feels that the board needs to make the administration of the women's game more professional and have a plan that is separate from that for men's cricket. Only then, he says, can women's cricket grow faster.
"It is a good start, but there needs to be a solid plan, a plan different to that for the boys and men, for things to move forward and for us to build on it," Karim said in a chat with ESPNcricinfo. "I feel the way to go forward is to make it much more professional, and growth of women's cricket has to be different from boys' cricket, and the planning has to be different. One has to have a different plan, a constructive plan, with lots of outreach programmes."
While Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur, Jhulan GoswamiSmriti Mandhana and a couple of others are household names in India, Karim said the pathway for young women to move from the lowest rungs to the top are yet to be properly put in place. "In India, we don't have many girls who come and play, even now. One has to ensure that their passage from entering the system to the time they exit is without obstacles," he said. "For instance, for a boy to walk two kilometres to play cricket, or to go to school, is easy. But it's not for a girl. So how do we remove that? How do we make it more accessible?
"Also, the BCCI has Under-19 and Under-23 cricket, but 40-50% of the girls end up playing [both] Under-19 and Under-23 for certain teams, because there aren't too many girls playing. We had to have separate calendars so there was no clash. That isn't the case with the boys, because there are so many players and there is so much talent. So the plan for women has to be different."
"The way men's cricket is played in India, we don't need to do too much, because there is so much talent, so many players in the system. That has to happen for the women"
When India played the Bristol Test earlier this month, it wasn't just the team's first Test match in seven years. It was also the first long-format game the players had been involved in in years, with the BCCI discontinuing its women's domestic first-class competition after the 2017-18 season.
During Karim's three-year term in the BCCI, domestic and women's cricket were among his primary responsibilities, his mandate being to draw up roadmaps and structures for holistic development. There was the occasional chat at the BCCI - run by the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) for the best part of his time there - about women's cricket, Karim said, but nothing that suggested a revival of the first-class and Test formats so soon.
"Only England and Australia had Test matches, and no country was very keen to play, there were lots of constraints: lots of women cricketers are not professionals, getting out for so many days was a problem; not just in India, but elsewhere too," Karim said. "I think that's why the BCCI took the decision not to have Test matches, and therefore no first-class tournament.
"There were discussions, there were talks, between some of the other nations too. More so after England and Australia introduced the points-system-based multi-format Ashes. This gained momentum in India too; the BCCI wanted to be in that position. I am glad it has happened. But to sustain it, we need multi-day cricket for women in the domestic circuit also. It might start from the Under-23 level, and take it up to the seniors."
It is, however, easier said than done, and Karim accepted that. "The only way forward is to have a full-fledged three-day competition. But the issue is not conducting the matches; the BCCI hosts an incredible number of matches anyway. The issue is the calendar - it's packed, and we have limited time to conduct so many tournaments," he says. "You can't start before September, even mid-September, to accommodate the increase in the number of matches. It was possible because so many new venues came up, but it was a logistical nightmare for sure.
"For a women's multi-day event, we need to look at some more venues. Plus, don't forget, this means an increase in the number of match officials, scorers, groundspersons, video analysts, the entire contingent. It's not only about grounds. All that needs to be considered."
Karim, often in consultation with National Cricket Academy director Rahul Dravid, had chalked out a comprehensive plan to try and take Indian women's cricket to the next level, and much of it involved a greater focus at the lower levels, and a lot of collaboration with the state associations.
"Outreach programmes with Tier-2 and Tier-3 towns, schools, those were in the pipelines. The Women's IPL [in discussions for a while now but yet to become a reality] is at the highest level, and that we can have. But for it to be successful, we need a stronger domestic circuit, a better structure," Karim says. "The women's IPL will have the same quality as the men's IPL if there is a strong foundation. The way men's cricket is played in India, we don't need to do too much, because there is so much talent, so many players in the system. That has to happen for the women."
The onus, Karim said, was not just on the BCCI, but primarily with the states. "Initially, the responsibility of the state associations and the BCCI is to come up with a proper plan. A proper roadmap needs to be in place. That will come from the BCCI. But the BCCI can't do everything. The states need to play their part to make it happen."