Ramesh Powar’s last stint as head coach of the Indian women’s cricket team didn’t end in the best of circumstances.

After India’s exit in the semi-finals of the 2018 T20 World Cup, he was involved in an unsavoury and very public clash of words, tweets and leaked correspondence with ODI captain Mitali Raj. His contract was not renewed further and WV Raman was appointed coach. Raman took the team to the final of the 2020 T20 World Cup.

But now, the roles stand reversed. Powar is back and has replaced Raman ahead of an extremely important period for women’s cricket, which includes tours to England, Australia and the delayed ODI World Cup.

The choice made by the Cricket Advisory Committee of Madan Lal, RP Singh and Sulakshana Naik is reportedly based on Powar’s experience and credentials. The 42-year-old’s coaching skills are indeed proven and he’s coming off a successful campaign with the Mumbai men’s cricket team in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy. He has also in the past received endorsements from India’s T20I captain and vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana.

But one has to wonder whether this is the best-case scenario for the Indian women’s cricket team ahead of a crucial season?

A big season ahead

Starting with a multi-format limited-overs series in England and culminating with the ODI World Cup in New Zealand, the next 10 months are vital for the steadily-improving Indian cricket team. The revolution that began in earnest when Mithali Raj and Co reached the final of the ODI World Cup in 2017 has gained steam and India are now seen as one of the genuine contenders for ICC trophies.

Having played no international cricket for a year after the T20 World Cup runner-up finish in 2020 (partly due to the pandemic, partly during to administrative indifference) before going down to South Africa in both limited-overs series, the importance of the next four series cannot be overstated.

It is essential that the captain and coach are not only on the same page, but on the same line too. Additionally, Mithali Raj, even at the age of 38, is very much the focal point of the Indian ODI batting unit. In the recent series against South Africa, where she played international cricket after 15 months, she was India’s second-highest run-getter.

Madan Lal, in various interviews after announcing the decision, said that the committee was satisfied with the answers Powar gave about the 2018 controversy. We do not know Mithali’s reaction yet. But this appointment and the letting go of WV Raman, who had enjoyed reasonable success with the team in his short stint, will raise many questions.

Questions aplenty

Now, it’s easy to put the 2018 controversy in the rearview mirror but at the time, the situation had turned very vitriolic, very quick with a series of infamous media leaks. Here’s a brief recap:

First, Mithali Raj, who was dropped during the T20 World Cup as India suffered a batting collapse in the semi-final, wrote BCCI an email accusing CoA-member Diana Edulji of bias and coach Ramesh Powar of mistreating her. Powar later voiced his side of the story in a report submitted to the BCCI, which was just as scathing as Mithali’s email. He accused her of blackmailing the team saying that she threatened to retire on being denied the opening slot. Raj reacted to Powar’s statement on Twitter saying this was the darkest day of her life and her patriotism was questioned. Harmanpreet and Mandhana also got involved when they sent BCCI letters backing Powar as coach.   

However, that feud eventually died down without any intervention as Powar’s three-month interim tenure came to an end and Raman was named despite Powar re-applying. Mithali eventually retired from the T20 format and has all but said that the 2022 World Cup will be her international swansong.

But now, the incident is back in the spotlight and so are these questions.

1. As much as all parties may claim to bury the hatchet, can that ugly, publicly fallout actually be completely forgotten?

2. Why was WV Raman let go despite a good stint?

3. Will this decision and the background behind it create factions within the Indian dressing room?

Lal, Edulji and other former players believe that as professionals and with the best interest of Indian cricket at heart, Mithali and Powar will work together. Indeed, Indian cricket has seen similar coach-captain clashes in the past – Sourav Ganguly and Greg Chappel playing pool or Virat Kohli falling out with Anil Kumble. But, then it is the player who had the last word. Here, the coach has returned and both parties will have to work together again.

And that in turn, brings us to the question, how will this dynamic affect the Indian team? The current crop is largely young and have spent more time together in the T20 set up recently. The focus now will be more on the ODI side and that means Mithali should ideally be a key decision maker in team combinations. A clash of ideas between coach and captain in any team selection is normal, but the past baggage will hang heavy.

While none of the questions surrounding Powar and Mithali have a definite answer, the one about Raman largely does.

Seen from whichever lens, the 55-year-old got a short stick despite the good work he has done with the last World Cup’s runners-up. Certain media reports suggested that the CAC felt Raman inherited a team built by Powar. However, it cannot be denied that the Tamil Nadu cricketer also got results, be it reaching the T20 World Cup final or that of the tri-series in Australia before that. He oversaw the debut of Shafali Verma and was involved with the Women’s T20 Challenge – the only competition in 2020 after the World Cup – as well.

Raman seems to have taken his ouster well, tweeting his wishes to Powar. But in another leak, he has reportedly written to Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid criticising the star culture in the Indian team and offering a roadmap. His tweet saying he has no inclination to talk about women’s cricket anymore was more telling.

It is clear that there’s a fair share of problems in the Indian women’s cricket set-up, even if only at an administrative level. This is not ideal for a team that is any way at a disadvantage due to a lack of playing opportunities. While this may not be new for Indian cricket, it certainly presents another challenge to the young team and veteran captain looking for their first World Cup.