In recent times, July has seen heroes emerge among women in Indian sport. Dipa Karmakar clinched India’s maiden World Challenge Cup gold in gymnastics on July 8. Five days later, teenager Hima Das sprinted her way into national recognition with India’s first international gold in a track event.
Between the jubilation surrounding these two individual feats, though, there emerged a narrative of a team grappling with the fickleness of fame and the burden of expectation in a cricket-dominated culture that accepted them ideologically as one of their own, only last July.
The breakout run of India women’s cricket team at the 2017 World Cup in England had promised to be more than a performance that culminated in just a silver medal at the podium. It was a collective expression of individual brilliance that turned a group of female athletes into the “brand it is [now]” as Mithali Raj, one of their foremost exponents – and herself “a product of the brand” – said recently.
A year on from the World Cup, the shock resignation of their head coach Tushar Arothe has now shoved the team into a void of uncertainty. This, at a time that the “brand” had only just started gaining traction. That the fallout coincided with a row involving one of their star performers – T20I captain Harmanpreet Kaur – and her alleged fake college certificates, has only added to the disarray.
The World T20 is less than four months away, so the timing isn’t favourable. And questions about the players’ temperaments haven’t helped either. Arothe saying he demanded “more honesty and more intent from the players” to come out of their “comfort zone to achieve bigger things” is perhaps not the best endorsement for any team. Especially from a former coach whose contract was extended after the team shot past expectations at their previous world tournament.
While it is no secret in Indian cricket that the influence of the coach pales in significance when compared to the clout of the captain, questions remain if relations between Arothe and the two captains – Raj and Harmanpreet, who had both met with senior BCCI officials and the Committee of Administrators last month – had become untenable. Or, worse still, if disagreements intensified to the point that the BCCI and the CoA saw no room for convening a meeting with all players and support staff involved.
The roots of the rot perhaps lay in the precedent set by the shocking ouster of Arothe’s predecessor, Purnima Rau, who was sacked in April 2017 despite back-to-back title-winning campaigns ahead of the World Cup. Word has it that the request for a male head coach from the senior players last year didn’t perhaps necessitate the removal of Rau, contrary to how it eventually panned out. Therefore, in light of Arothe’s premature resignation, do the board, the CoA and the players as a collective not send out the message that accountability on the part of players themselves is not to be expected for their lean returns on a tour?
ESPNcricinfo understands that within days of Arothe vacating the post, the BCCI offered the job to Chandrakant Pandit, coach of reigning Ranji Trophy champions Vidarbha. Even though he declined it “on the grounds of his commitment to Vidarbha”, the BCCI’s choice appears at once logical and unreasoned. Pandit’s emphasis on clarity of thought and instilling a sense of purpose among his players has been a trademark of his success as a coach, as has his no-nonsense approach as a disciplinarian. But how would these traits have gone down with players who were unwilling to “step out of the comfort zone” during Arothe’s tenure?
As a short-term fix ahead of the first national camp – starting July 25 – after failure in the Asia Cup, the board named Ramesh Powar as the interim head coach.
As the scouting for a new full-time coach takes its natural course, the opportunity for a greater re-evaluation presented by the current shake-up shouldn’t be lost on the board. While there is every need for scrutinising existing cultures where players appear to have some license to put an expiry date on the coach’s shelf life, the time is right, perhaps, for the BCCI and the think tank to look beyond.
Truth be told, T20I cricket is not India’s strongest suit. Their last-place finish against England and Australia in the tri-series at home, or their losses to Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, only exposed their inadequacies in the format. However, that is not to say that India don’t stand a chance at the World T20; not many had backed them to even qualify for the semi-finals in the World Cup last year, let alone almost win it. But if myopia be cast off, isn’t there a case for the board and the management to look beyond their outing in the world tournament this November and instead devise a long-term plan for the 2020 World T20 and the 2021 World Cup? Nineteen months is adequate time to build a T20 team for the next world tournament, but does the current side have enough clarity to adapt to the rapid nature of the game?
Not necessarily. India have employed the slow-starting Raj as Smriti Mandhana’s opening partner. They don’t have a second legspin option besides Poonam Yadav. There has been a lack of sustained exposure for teenagers Jemimah Rodrigues and Pooja Vastrakar. And finally, Harmanpreet’s own role as a part-time offspinner (as exposed in the Asia Cup final) and India’s poor T20I form under her captaincy since October 2016 are some of the inadequacies in the shortest format.
What these patterns establish is the tendency of India to base their T20I tactics on a relatively successful ODI template, but that hasn’t worked out. The efficacy of their ODI formula too is slowly getting exposed, as witnessed earlier this year at home during their 0-3 hammering against Australia, and the jailbreak of a victory that the subsequent 2-1 series win against England proved to be.
India’s current limitations in the field also mean – in Harmanpreet’s own words – that not everyone “can run all over the ground; we don’t need players [in T20Is] who can just stand in the 30-yard [circle].” Does that merit a consideration that more youngsters, or fitter players, including promising, uncapped ones from the India A squads, be given a go in T20Is?
What good are the sporadic ‘A’ series going to serve anyway – there’s one in the pipeline ahead of the World T20 against a visiting Australia A side, too – if the rookies are not backed to mature through the rigours of international cricket? The Asia Cup was to be one such testing ground, but conservative selection decisions shut that opportunity down.
As the administration and the team confront these questions and come to grips with the evolving profile of women’s cricket, much of the onus to salvage “brand” India women will now depend on two of its most marketable “products”. The return of Mandhana and Harmanpreet to the UK for their Kia Super League debuts later this week, and the nature of their performance in England, will add further significance to events of this month as had their knocks of 90 and 171 not-out this time last year. Those performances bookended India’s victorious run at a World Cup that made a “brand” of the team, even though they finished second.
Source : ESPN Cricinfo