Maybe, it’s symbolic that Mithali Raj would be leading the India Women in whites, in the team’s first Test in seven years. Mithali always seemingly bore a grudge against the apparent non-recognition of women’s cricket in a cricket-mad country. Back in 2017, ahead of the ICC Women’s World Cup opener against England, she was asked about her favourite men’s cricketer. “Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? Do you ask them who their favourite female cricketer is?” Mithali had snapped back.
Tuesday, however, wasn’t the occasion to begrudge anybody. On the eve of India Women’s one-off Test against England Women at Bristol, Mithali chose to look at the positives. “I feel this Test match and even the pink-ball Test, which is in Australia in the coming months, it’s just the beginning of having three-format bilateral series,” the captain said at the pre-match press conference.
A Test match after a gap of seven years, followed by a day-night pink-ball affair in Australia a few months down the line, suggests the mainstreaming of Indian women’s cricket. The India Women will play three ODIs and as many T20Is apart from the Test during their English sojourn. As regards to the longer format, they are short on game time compared to their England counterparts.
Mithali herself is a case in point. She made her international debut in 1999 and more than two decades into top-level cricket, the 38-year-old top-order batter has played only 10 Tests. Her last Test was in November 2014 against South Africa. Medium pacer Jhulan Goswami, too, has played 10 Tests in her almost 20 years in international cricket.
A comparative analysis with a men’s Test regular would be irrelevant and completely out of place. But a comparison between Mithali and England Women’s all-rounder Katherine Brunt will help put things in perspective. Katherine has played 12 Tests, coming into international cricket five years after the India Women’s captain made her debut. The current England Women’s captain Heather Knight has already played seven Tests in about 10 years of international cricket.
“I won’t say we haven’t been getting recognition. Women’s cricket has been getting recognition once we came into the BCCI fold in 2006. I would agree that not so much of interest was shown at that time, but a lot of things changed after the 2017 World Cup final. Everybody took cognisance that women’s cricket has arrived, but unfortunately, we never thought of Test cricket, which I always wanted,” former India Women’s captain Diana Edulji, who was also a member of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA), told The Indian Express.
Edulji said that as a member of the CoA, she tried to make women’s Test cricket a regular part of the roster. “I tried my level best to make the other members convinced (about) the same way Australia and England play. A lot of countries don’t want to play Test cricket. They don’t have that money, they don’t have time… So I said whenever any team comes to India, we should have at least one Test match. We can cut down on the T20s; we can cut down on the ODIs. I wanted the same pattern in which the (women’s) Ashes is played – one Test, a few ODIs and T20Is and then take the whole points and the winner is decided.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t materialise, but I’m glad that now it has materialised and we are going to play from tomorrow. This is a pattern that we should have. A beginning is made again and I think the girls should take full advantage of the situation. The result shouldn’t matter as long as they play good cricket.”
All to play for
The India Women stand on the cusp of a record. If they win the Test against England, Mithali and Co would pull clear of Australia by winning four Tests on the spin. They are on a three-match winning streak, over a period of 15 years. In 2006, when they played against England, India Women had eight debutants. The current side at least has eight players who have played this format before. England Women have 11 players with previous Test match experience. “Seven years back, the scenario was very different for women’s cricket,” Mithali said.
Among the likely debutants, 17-year-old Shafali Verma is probably the most talked about, thanks to her aggressive batting style. But a statutory warning came from Edulji: “She is a match-winner. I only hope they don’t tinker with her game.”
Back in 2014, in a one-off Test against England Women at Wormsley, India had pulled off an upset. In 2021, on a used pitch at Bristol, a new chapter is set to begin.
Used pitch ‘not ideal’
A used pitch at Bristol for the one-off Test has raised a few eyebrows. At the press conference, Mithali Raj was asked about it, but she played down the issue, saying: “We are here to play a match. Whatever strip we get, we try to get a result out of that. That’s our thought process.”
Diana Edulji, however, expressed disappointment. “I’m a little surprised that it’s a used pitch. A fresh pitch should have been given. It’s not done. We wouldn’t have done it in India at least. We wouldn’t have given a used pitch, especially for a five-day game.”
England captain Heather Knight, too, has called the used pitch for the Test “unfortunate” and “not ideal”.