By Karunya Keshav
The weather departments and apps agree: Thunderstorms over the next week in Raipur and Guntur. Which would be a pity, really, as the cities get ready to host India’s top female cricketers in the opening tournament of the 2016-17 domestic season.
When Hyderabad take on Maharashtra at the Sector 10 grounds in Raipur early on Saturday (October 1), even as Punjab and Andhra face off in Guntur and Railways play Mumbai in Perecherla, near Guntur, in the first Elite Group games of the Inter-State One-Day competition, they do so with more than a title at stake.
The strides the women’s game has taken – and the few steps back it has fallen – over the past year has raised the sense of occasion around this domestic season. For one, there is more for the women to aim for, more reward for consistent performances. The contracts, the first set of which were announced just before last season, are up for renewal. One of the expectations during the introduction of the contracts was increased competition for them, and this season will be the first to reveal new claimants.
The national side is reasonably set, but in a World Cup year, neither can the incumbents rest easy nor can those on the fringes let up on efforts to break into the squad. India’s World T20 2016 campaign at home was disappointing. This year, they will host West Indies, the T20 champions and No. 2 side on the ICC Women’s Championship, in the next round of the race to seal a direct berth in the World Cup 2017 in England. India are sixth on the eight-team table; if they refuse to play Pakistan, as the BCCI president has suggested, and forfeit the points from three ODIs, they will likely slip further down the table and have to fend off qualifiers for the last four available spots in England. Either way, a long few months of intense international cricket await the national side, and the rigours of the circuit will necessitate an expanded pool of cricketers who are up for the challenge.
Importantly for the players, among them will be two who will feature in the second edition of the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia at the end of the year. Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana‘s signings (they will possibly miss the domestic T20 competition, scheduled from January 2-15 as a result) have made them role models that the women’s game is desperately in need of and have shown the opportunities that exist for female players now.
Paying close attention will be a new selection panel led by Hemalata Kala. The panel itself remains under a cloud following the observations of the Supreme Court and the Lodha panel and could well be dismissed – but, for now, in its chairperson, who last represented India in 2008, it has someone with a more recent link to the game. How that will impact the direction taken by the team remains to be seen.
Given all of this, it is vital that the players themselves raise their game. Railways, packed with internationals, have dominated the domestic circuit. Last season, they won their fourth title in a row, and were unbeaten during the league stage of the one-dayers. They had the top two run-scorers, Mithali Raj and MD Thirushkamini, and the top wicket-taker in Ekta Bisht, the left-arm spinner. It will be up to their challengers in Elite Group B, including the newly promoted Madhya Pradesh, to actually pose a threat and push them – if only to improve the level of competition and test India’s internationals.
Also making the step up to the Elite group are Baroda, who lost out to Madhya Pradesh in the Plate group final, while Odisha and Bengal slip down. Karnataka, who were stunned by Baroda on their march to the final, will be looking to make amends and realise their ambitions of playing in the highest rung.
Consistency in batting has also been an issue among the second rung of players. Last season, the one-day games were low-scoring ones, with bowlers walking away with most plaudits and only the top two scorers and MP’s Varsha Choudhary able to cross 200 runs. In cloudy conditions, at least for the elite group, there might be more of the same – but any batter who can stand up to the likes of Bisht, Jhulan Goswami (Bengal), Sneh Rana (Railways), Shikha Pandey (Goa) and Gouher Sultana (Hyderabad), as well as up-and-comers Devika Vaidya (Maharashtra), Preeti Bose (Haryana) and Nancy Patel (Baroda), will be one to watch.
Hearteningly, this season, the two Under 23-competitions introduced last year to allow the younger players more game time have been retained. Vaidya, and Andhra’s Meghana Sabbineni and K Dhatri, who will turn 16 on Sunday, were the stand-outs there, and will be expected to continue their climb. The stage, after all, is set for India’s future stars to reveal themselves.
First published on Wisden India.