This has been a year of uncertainties for India’s women cricketers. When they travelled to Australia in January, not many were optimistic about their chances in the T20 World Cup. But the Women in Blue played with elan and made it to the final of the tournament, before going down to the host, Australia, in a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Even though they suffered yet another final defeat, their spirited show in the tournament earned praises. It, indeed, was a perfect start to the year.
But things changed thick and fast over the next few weeks.
As the country witnessed a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic in March, the cricketers, too, lost their opportunity to start training and stayed at home and did basic drills — without anyone actually guiding them.
What initially looked like a ‘much-deserved break’, turned into a nightmare as the period of lockdown got extended by months. Even as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) ensured that the fitness trainers and the coaches interacted regularly with the players during the ‘tough phase’ and advised them on how to stay fit, there was only so much that they could do, virtually.
The proposed tour of England got cancelled, the World Cup — scheduled to be held in New Zealand in 2021 — was postponed by a year, and it looked as if there would be no further assignments for the Indian women this year. There were doubts, disappointments and obviously fear.
Harmanpreet Kaur of Supernovas in action against Velocity in Jaipur, last year. Supernovas defeated Velocity to win a second straight title. – V. V. Krishnan
But now, the cricketers finally have something to look forward to.
Soon after it was decided that the Indian Premier League (IPL) would be played in a bio-secure environment in the United Arab Emirates, the BCCI announced that the much-awaited Women’s T20 Challenge, too, will be hosted there. Forty-five players have been divided into three teams and they will feature in four fixtures, between November 4 and 9, in Sharjah. And before flying out to the Emirates, all the Indian players assembled in Mumbai and were put under a strict nine-day quarantine at a plush hotel. The players were tested regularly and given a thorough briefing of the bio-bubble and the protocols to be kept in mind.
“It will be a different experience. There will be an isolation period, where you cannot meet your team-mates and then we have to be inside the bio-bubble. It’s difficult to keep yourself motivated in the small space that you are given, but when we come out of it and meet our team-mates, I am looking forward to that environment,” India’s ODI captain Mithali Raj — who will be leading the Velocity team — says.
Things won’t be easy. Most players have not had much training over the last seven months and they would hardly get a few days to train in the hot and humid conditions of the UAE before taking the field.
“We are coming from a long gap. As an ODI player, the last series that I played was in November, 2019 (against the West Indies). It has been close to a year. For other players, it has been a good six-seven months break. In the IPL, many players took some time to settle down, so it will be a challenge,” Mithali says, hoping to find rhythm as the ‘sessions progress’.
When the tournament was held in Jaipur last year, some of the top cricketers from England and Australia participated. But this time, with the Women’s Big Bash League coming up, the Australian players are unavailable. However, South Africa’s Sune Luus, England’s Danielle Wyatt, Sophie Ecclestone, West Indies’ Deandra Dottin will be available. And with the absence of Australian players, the focus will be on the Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi cricketers. For the first time, Thailand’s Natthakan Chantham will be part of the tournament, and the youngster is excited.
“Being selected for the IPL (Women’s Challenge) is a major milestone for me as a professional cricketer. Hopefully my achievement can inspire more Thai girls and even more girls in our region,” she says.
“It was supposed to be a four-team event this year but the venue change has made the task much tougher. But I want to say that the BCCI is interested in promoting women’s cricket,” former India captain and member of the BCCI Apex Council, Shantha Rangaswamy, says. – K. Murali Kumar
The cricketers and the administrators are aware that it will be a challenge to get things in order. But they are optimistic that even though the matches will be played in empty stands, the tournament will have a solid viewership on television and streaming platforms.
“It was supposed to be a four-team event this year but the venue change has made the task much tougher. But I want to say that the BCCI is interested in promoting women’s cricket,” former India captain and member of the BCCI Apex Council, Shantha Rangaswamy, says.
Last year in Jaipur, India T20I captain Harmanpreet Kaur’s side, Supernovas, defeated her ODI counterpart Mithali Raj’s Velocity to win a second straight title.
But as another edition beckons, the players are just excited to be back to where they belong — after seven long months!