In the two days since India’s exit from the ICC Women’s World T20, the semi-final loss to England has taken a controversial turn after Mithali Raj’s exclusion from the playing XI prompted an angry response from her manager on Twitter.
A consequence of the increased visibility of women’s cricket, the selection call to drop India’s most successful player in a knock-out match has not only received unprecedented attention, but also a backlash that was fuelled by Raj’s manager Annisha Gupta, who called Harmanpreet Kaur a “manipulative, lying, immature, undeserving captain” in the now-deleted post.
Even as social media debate on the supposed falling out within team and the off-field issues involved rages on, Raj’s exclusion is a cricketing issue at the heart of it. As a bold gamble, it backfired and has now raised questions about both the Indian team and the future of Raj, the flag-bearer of said team for over two decades.
Questions, questions everywhere
This isn’t the first time that the Indian team has made selection calls that have been questioned – Jemimah Rodrigues was not part of any match in the Asia Cup despite being in the squad and despite being a T20I specialist; Mona Meshram was favoured over her.
This is also not the first time that there is chatter about a rift within the team. Something along these lines has been alluded often enough in the past. Coach Ramesh Powar himself said that when he joined he had to make the team realise that “Team India comes first, everything else comes later.”
When former coach Tushar Arothe was made to resign after the Asia Cup loss, he said that there were a few players who wielded too much power, all but naming the T20I captain Harmanpreet. Former coach Purnima Rau was much more forthright, saying that “the current system is allowing a few powerful individuals to make decisions, and group-ism is being allowed to prosper.”
But this time, there is a tangible consequence, if not of the alleged long-standing rift, then of a latent difference of opinion at least over Raj’s role in T20Is.
The biggest question right now is – what next for Mithali Raj? Will she continue to be part of the Indian team in both formats? Or will the combination of exclusion and outburst make her position in the team untenable?
There is no one, direct answer to this. Instead, there are more questions that branch out because of the number of variable factors to consider.
Is the rift over the selection only or is there a deeper current that is fracturing the team? Has Harmanpreet eclipsed Raj as the most influential player in the team? How involved was coach Ramesh Powar in the decision? Or, indeed, how much longer is Powar going to be coach? How much international cricket India is going to play in the next year for Raj to decide on her future?
End of the road in T20Is
The only thing clear so far is that Raj does not fit into the team’s plans in T20Is anymore, whether because of a conscious focus on blooding youngsters or matters of strike-rate and fielding.
Yes, Raj brings a lot to the table even if she isn’t the conventional power-hitter favoured in the format. But that is not what the T20 team captain Harmanpreet is looking for. After the first match of the World T20, when she scored a blistering hundred against New Zealand, Harmanpreet had said that Raj was pushed down to No 6 in the batting order because of her poor run of form at the top of the order.
The veteran didn’t come out to bat in that match but was sent to open in the subsequent matches against Pakistan and Ireland, when she scored back-to-back fifties and was adjudged the Player of the Match.
Then, the captain said, “Mithali is a key player and we have to use her in a smart way. Pakistan are a good bowling side, she’s very good against spin and that’s why we played her up there, it was a decision by the coach and me.”
Of course, Harmanpreet has also backed her semi-final call despite the loss, saying that it was a decision taken for the team. Knowing her, she will stick to her guns no matter what.
ODIs are a different story
In One-Day Internationals, it’s a different matter altogether. Raj is currently the captain of the team and very much a match-winner in the format, apart from being the highest run-getter and most consistent scorer.
The next series lined up for India is also in the 50-over format, when India will go to New Zealand in January for the next instalment of the ICC Women’s Championship, before a T20Is series.
While the calendar after that has not been released yet, it’s likely to involve more bilateral series that are mandatory to qualify for the next ODI World Cup. Additionally, there could be some other ODI matches outside the championship cycle like the one against England earlier this year.
So, it is conveyable that Raj will have a few more ODIs to play, if not T20Is. The next World Cup is in 2021, but before that there will be another World T20, in Australia in 2020, and India will look to get their team ready for that. It was this looking forward that had prompted Jhulan Goswami to quit the format earlier this year.
Powar’s future also important
Another, and possibly among the most important factors here, would be the role of Ramesh Powar. His tenure as coach, as of now, is only till the end of this month.
He has been unanimously praised by Harmanpreet, T20I vice captain Smriti Mandhana and other seniors in the team. He could just get a longer stay as India women’s coach. This means working closely with Raj, if she continues as ODI captain.
He was clearly a part of the think-tank that decided to exclude Raj from the semi-final and therefore believes that she is not meant for the shortest format. Does this opinion extend to the 50-over format as well? That remains to be seen. The future of his short-term contract is sure to have a bearing on how the Raj story plays out.
For now, all anyone can say is that Indian women’s cricket and its biggest players will be the subject of a lot of scrutiny in the coming days.