Sharda Ugra

What's behind the Mithali-Powar saga?

The falling out of player and coach has been unseemly and has shown both in a bad light, but what does it say about the Indian board?

Sharda Ugra
Sharda Ugra
Mithali Raj watched on helpless as India collapsed, England v India, Women's World Cup final, Lord's, July 23, 2017

The rivalry between Mithali, the unflappable leader, and Harmanpreet, the fiery rookie, is every archetypal sports story ever  •  Getty Images

Watching the Mithali Raj v Ramesh Powar controversy flood Twitter timelines and dominate cricket headlines - bypassing even Michael Clarke's good grab at instant attention - a thought struck. Who advised Mithali to put her objections to the coach, Powar, Diana Edulji and assorted selectors down in writing, and why did she agree?
Down the years, the Indian men's team, with its storied history of internal bickerings, has always followed one golden rule and it is a good one. There is a line they never cross: no putting names or signatures on anything. The verbal jousting always remains verbal. Male cricketers were even careful about text messages. The path previously taken was to make phone calls and whine against intended targets to friendly officials or agents or journalists and hope everything got out into the media.
But what do we know?
In the age of social media and T20, discretion may be considered the better part of timidity, and the full frontal foot is the only way to record victories, so here we are. Witness to the detritus left from the Indian team's abrupt finish in their World T20 campaign, after their underwhelming semi-final defeat to England. Before getting stuck into the personalities involved, the fact that this is headline news on TV in India, and occupying column inches, is in many ways a signal: it says that women's cricket now finds itself among several front-line sports in India. It must now simply absorb the attention it gets - for success, failure, the mistakes the players make, the money they earn, and the bitterness of internal rivalries that spills over.
There have been such conflagrations in the past - in Indian women's cricket and in all cricket around the world. It is only that until now Indian women's cricket wasn't of interest to anyone outside of a very small bunch of loyal followers. At a media-management session, just before the 2017 World Cup, Harmanpreet Kaur said to my colleague Gaurav Kalra, "You are asking us to tell our stories. Well, we are ready to do so but no one seems interested to listen." Now everyone wants to hear everything, down to every ghastly detail.
Neither Mithali nor Powar has held back, and neither has emerged saintly. With her leaked email, Mithali has also given Powar the easy fall back of "she started it". Aside from the damage it has done Indian women's cricket internationally, the episode has also demonstrated that the BCCI's top brass is in sore need of some high-quality plumbing. Where leadership was required, the duty of first response has been handed over to agents provocateurs.
Down the years, the Indian men's team, with its storied history of internal bickerings, has always followed one golden rule and it is a good one. There is a line they never cross: no putting names or signatures on anything
The rivalry between Mithali, the run machine, the unflappable sage, the calm leader, and Harmanpreet, the inflammatory rookie, the fearless hitter, and one who has redrawn the boundaries of her game, is an archetypal sports story. Murmurs of differences between the two had begun to simmer after Harmanpreet's WBBL debut. In her first three innings at the 2017 World Cup, Harmanpreet was sent in to bat at No. 5 (against Pakistan), No. 6 (Sri Lanka) and No. 5 again (South Africa), citing her injury to her finger. She was restored to the No. 4 spot for the next game and, in the afterglow of her semi-final innings against Australia and India's run to the final, the murmurs settled down. Now, after the defeat in the World T20, they have once again reached maximum decibel levels.
Differences between generations are a familiar trope in Indian cricket. Among the more famous of such cases was Kapil Dev's slow struggle towards retirement, as younger fast bowlers rusted in anticipation. Sachin Tendulkar's last 12 months were harrowing, falling well below the previous worst patch of an outstanding high-quality career. Kapil didn't have coaches to cramp his flagging style, and Tendulkar's mountain of records and goodwill survived every tempest. Let's not get into all the famous pettiness over Mumbai v Delhi or Gavaskar v Kapil, or the Chappell v Ganguly bust-up, because it is too tedious to bear repeating. The point is, this has happened before. Cricketers whine and moan and bitch. Officials hear them out and punish one of the concerned parties and on we go.
In this unseemly affair, both Mithali and Powar have made the same mistake by placing their hopes in the BCCI's leaky plumbing, and together they have done enormous harm to their team. Powar replaced Tushar Arothe as interim coach, following a complaint from the players, but what happens now when the team sets out for New Zealand in January? Mithali remains ODI captain, and the coach who she says left her "deflated, depressed and let down" has reached the end of his tenure. What kind of coach will join a team whose captain has been accused by a fellow professional of "blackmailing and pressurising" coaches? What will the internal dynamic of the team be, driven by the relationship between Mithali, Harmanpreet and the younger members of the squad?
In the aftermath of the leaks, something had to give, and Powar's departure has conveniently come at this time. According to the terms of his contract, upon favourable evaluation by the BCCI, he was eligible for a 12-month extension as head coach, but the board has now opted to start the process of picking a new coach from scratch. Technically Powar could apply for the job again, though it is highly unlikely he will be the leading candidate if Mithali is involved in the selection.
This is only the opening move in the cycle of purging that accompanies heavy, high-profile defeats: first the coach goes, then the next time something happens, the captain goes. After that it's the coach again, and so on. Both Mithali and Powar painted themselves into a corner. As a player of enormous stature Mithali has survived this particular incident, but there is no guarantee the bloodletting will decrease.
For fans anguished over this ugly skirmish, remember, the cricket community is hardwired into expediency between warring parties, and who knows where Mithali's and Powar's paths will cross again and how they will work things out. What Indian cricket needs to figure out in the interim is: who is in charge of the BCCI and its plumbing, and who left the tap open?

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo