The glow of India’s historic second straight Test series win in Australia is yet to be diminished. It’s still hard to articulate how exactly the fortress at Gabba was breached by, virtually, a second-string Indian team.
The secret weapon for India, arguably, a surprise weapon too – the mix of young players who adapted to the biggest of stages in a matter of innings. The way the rookies held their nerve to secure the win was praised all over the world.
A part of the credit for developing this bench strength went to one Rahul Dravid, who was praised for choosing the vital behind-the-scenes job of India Under-19 and A coach, and now the National Cricket Academy director. It was his planning and tutelage, along with the exposure of playing on overseas India A tours, that ensured newcomers could carry the load for India.
In short – India’s triumph was significantly connected to the success of the India A and Under-19 program envisioned by Dravid, which bridged the gap between the domestic and international in men’s cricket. It’s an exemplary blueprint and should be implemented by more cricket teams. But has it?
Just over a year ago, another Indian team was in Australia and the occasion felt momentous, although it wasn’t about international cricket. In December 2019, the women’s India A team embarked on their first-ever tour Down Under. Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly an A side with few internationals present ahead of the T20 World Cup. But encouragingly, it was part of an agreement to have A tours between the two boards.
Does this mean that there is an India A program for the women’s team as well?
Short answer: Yes and no. India has a proven blueprint and a start, but no dedicated system – or coach – in place.
“This discussion has been around for quite some time, even when I was coach and selector… all including senior players have asked for A series in the past. Now we have seen how impactful an A series is with the men’s team and it’s important for the women’s team,” Anju Jain, former India captain and recently head coach of Bangladesh, told Scroll.in.
Jain added: “In India, you play domestic, then Challengers and then directly get picked the Indian squad. But there is a gap and it’s important to bridge that. That’s why A, U-23 and U-19 series are important.”
Several former women players give the example of the men’s system where a player does not always go from Ranji Trophy to international cricket abroad but gains exposure through A tours first, something that women cricketers can only dream of at the moment. The rigid and robust cricketing structure that fed seasoned players to Ravi Shastri and Ajinkya Rahane’s senior Test team for a remarkable success story in Australia is not something the women’s cricketers can tap into yet.
“I remember Mayank Agarwal was doing well in Ranji but not getting a national call-up, but he was never kept in the cold. In the intervening period he played several series with the A side. The India A program is really good, if there is something on similar lines for women, where the next 15-20 are groomed, it will be great,” Mamatha Maben, former India player and coach, told Scroll.in.
Australia and England, the reigning world champions who beat India in the final of the last two World Cups, are already miles ahead in this regard. But the effort to build the second rung of the Indian women’s cricket team has been scaled up in recent years.
Earlier, an A team was largely restricted to playing against a visiting side in India. But the BCCI had revived A tours for women after the profile of the women’s game in the country grew in the last few years, catalysed by Mithali Raj and Co reaching the final of the 2017 ODI World Cup. In October 2019, India A had toured Bangladesh and in early 2020, there was a Women’s T20 Quadrangular Series in India involving Thailand and Bangladesh.
“We requested for an A tour when I was with Bangladesh and BCCI agreed which was very good. There was a U-23 Asia Cup coming up [the Asian Cricket Council Women’s Emerging Teams Cup],” Jain added.
The plan, it appeared, was on track till the pandemic hit and women’s cricket in India was pushed back a few steps, by both destiny and design. India’s international women’s cricket team has been out of sight for close to a year now, and we only saw the stars in action in the brief window of the four-match long Women’s T20 Challenge. A fully-funded tour to England was declined and an upcoming tour to Australia has been cancelled as well.
But, with Indian cricket slowly getting back to new normalcy, the time may be as good as any to restart this effort of building a robust structure for the women, especially with the delayed ODI World Cup just a year away.
Maben suggested that the best way to start is to have a separate, dedicated wing for women at the National Cricket Academy.
“It would be nice if we could have a separate women’s wing at NCA where there is someone exclusively catering to the women’s game and that will fetch more results,” she told Scroll.in. “Perhaps even some infrastructure, if they can dedicate a ground for women’s cricketers because otherwise you are always jostling for space.”
But it’s not just about having a place or program, but having the right person in charge as well, to play the role Dravid has.
“Just starting a women’s wing won’t be enough, we will need a dedicated person as well,” Maben added. “Like what Cricket Australia and ECB have been doing where they have an exclusive program for women with someone from the system in charge, like Clare Connor in England and Belinda Clarke in Australia. Dravid can be at helm and mentor but one person, perhaps a former cricketer, exclusively looking at the women’s game [is needed]. Dravid will have a lot to look after so we lighten the load and someone can work under his tutelage for women.”
India doesn’t have the bench strength of Australia or England and that is another reason why they need the program more.
“Look at Australia and England, whenever they travel their A team often travels with them and they have exchange programs for Under-19 players. They have their FTP set for the next few years as well,” Jain said. “Such a program for the A team is probably more important for the girls because they are playing fewer matches anyway.”
There is no question that the Indian women’s cricket ecosystem – which produced teams that were runners-up at the last ODI and T20 World Cup – is a storehouse of talent. But the key is to convert this potential into performance, much like the teams that beat India in those finals. For that, you need an enabler like Dravid and exposure overseas.
Indian cricket is lucky to have the blueprint ready with the men’s team and the success of it has been made obvious, it’s time to apply that to the women’s team as well.