Revolution can mean different things in different contexts, but it is a strong word that marks social change. Mithali Raj, who always weighs her words before speaking, said before leaving for the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 that winning the tournament could bring a revolution for women’s cricket in India. It was not just a throwaway remark.
There were around 25,000 people at the Moin-ul-Haq Stadium in Patna to witness Shantha Rangaswamy’s India record its first-ever Test win, in November 1978. The decline in interest after that was so steep that India’s first World Cup final appearance in 2005 was not even shown on television. Things were no different until recently, but some spectacular performances over the last few weeks have broken new barriers. There are stories galore of children wanting to emulate Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur, and women giving up their favourite daily shows on television to follow the team’s progress. This is indeed revolutionary, and a women’s version of the Indian Premier League could help sustain it.
The Women’s Big Bash League in Australia and the Women’s Super League in England have shown what can be achieved, and Raj believed India’s time has come.
“There might be a lot of changes back home if we go on to win the World Cup,” she said on Saturday, the eve of the title clash against England at Lord’s. “You never know, those changes will benefit future generations. Women’s cricket in India will have a brand of its own. It doesn’t require anything else to support it in promoting the sport. This platform and this win will definitely give that edge for young girls to take up the sport back home. Maybe, you never know, a women’s IPL might be in the pipeline.
“It is, now that the way the girls have been performing in the last couple of years,” she added, on being asked if it was the right time to start the venture. “We have also seen the way Smriti (Mandhana) and Harman (Harmanpreet Kaur) have benefitted with their exposure to WBBL. I am sure if the other youngsters in the side are exposed to the same culture, the domestic standard in Indian women’s cricket will improve immensely.”
Heather Knight, the England captain, too felt that a T20 league could contribute significantly in improving the profile of the sport.
“India being in the final is the best result for women’s cricket. There’s massive scope for growth and support from India. And with their team being in the final, BCCI will take note and support women’s cricket the way it should be,” said Knight. “A women’s IPL would be brilliant. The BBL and KSL have been really successful and they’ve been a part of pushing women’s cricket forward. You’ve seen players involved in those competitions really develop and perform in this World Cup. All we can keep doing as cricketers is keep improving and keep pushing. The more cricket we play, the more competitive and close games, people will improve quicker.”
Raj, who has played just ten Tests in her 18-year-career, stressed that while T20s are good for promotion, the real way to develop more quality cricketers would be by playing more longer format games.
“I would also prefer women cricketers playing longer format as well. That is the ultimate challenge,” she said. “T20 is a good way of promoting the sport, it gives more range for the batters to be innovative and proactive in shot selections. But if you want to see quality bowlers, it’s the longer version that actually gives them that space.
“It’s very important that you keep bowlers in the game, not just focus on the batter. We’ve seen the spinners doing well, but not really the fast bowlers. I would be happy to have more fast bowlers in the tournament.”
The immediate thing on Raj’s mind though was the upcoming final. Harmanpreet had sustained a shoulder injury and cramps during her unbeaten 115-ball 171 in the semi-final against Australia, and she cut short her batting session on Saturday too. However, the team management was confident of her availability.
“She got dehydrated that day. Because of the delay in the game none of the girls got to grab some lunch, the timing extended,” said Raj. “She has some niggles here and there, but she will be fit for tomorrow’s game. She is just taking precaution to not over-aggravate whatever little niggles are there.”
Raj will be leading India in a World Cup final for the first time, having been a finalist earlier in the 2005 edition. There is, however, very little similarity between the two games.
“I think it's a different experience from being finalist in 2005. Because of the ground we are playing on, and now the whole world is going to watch India play,” said Raj. “Everybody is rooting for India back home. Things have changed immensely for women cricketers. We have been getting a lot of calls from various parts of the country to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of the team so far. Everybody is happy the way the team has performed throughout the tournament. It is just one more game, it can change the fortunes of women’s cricket in India.”
One of the issues of playing at Lord’s is the 2.5-metre slope from one end of the ground to the other. Raj, who made an unbeaten 94 in a successful chase of 230 against England here in 2012 – considered one of her best innings, said that it was important to not worry too much about it.
“We don’t play that often, but again when I played last here it (the slope) was never in my mind,” she said. “I’m sure it should not play much of a role. How the batters adapt to it, each one of us have a different way. If you start thinking too much about the slope, how the ball is going to curve in or curve out, you forget the fundamentals of your own batting. We need to keep it as simple as we have been doing throughout the tournament.”