When we reached South Africa in 2005 for the Women's World Cup, the Indian team was put up at a university hostel in Pretoria. We were allotted the top floor of the building and as we checked in, we discovered that the rooms did not have fans and even some basic facilities were missing.
Much before we left for the World Cup, we knew that the team would have many on-field challenges, but we were not expecting such a welcome.
Back in those days, the women cricketers were not part of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and were run by the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI). So, as the head coach of the team, I called up the honorary secretary of WCAI, Shubhangi Kulkarni, informing her about the condition and she followed it up with the world body. Even though fans were put up in the rooms a few hours later, the basic amenities were still missing, and the local organisers told us that the room allotments were done via a lottery, and just coincidentally, India got those rooms.
“If you qualify for the semifinals, we will shift you all to the other blocks,” they told us.
And we knew that we had to battle the off-field hardships and just focus on our game. The girls did exactly that. We had some of the leading cricketers in the team — Anjum Chopra, Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami, Jaya Sharma, Neetu David, Hemlata Kala — and were determined to do well. Back in those days, not many were aware of the existence of women’s cricket and needless to say, even the media coverage was very little.
So, when the team made it to the final of the tournament and faced Australia at the Centurion on April 10, 2005, not many in India knew about the team’s achievement.
READ: Women’s World Cup: Stars to watch out for
There was hardly any coverage even though we were the first team from Asia to enter the final of a Women’s Cricket World Cup.
Two years prior to the World Cup, the selectors decided to persist with the same 20-member squad and there wasn’t much of chopping and changing, thereby giving the players a lot of confidence. This also helped me as a coach. I got to spend a lot of time with them individually and together, we ensured that the fitness level improved. The playing eleven was the same throughout the tournament.
It was heartbreak for sure in the final as we suffered a 98-run defeat against Australia, but I still feel that it was that final that gave Indian cricket a new direction.
In 2006, the WCAI disbanded as the BCCI took over the administration of women’s cricket, and that had a direct impact on the players as they started getting access to better playing facilities, grounds, etc.
In the 2009 ICC Women’s World Cup, we lost to New Zealand in the semifinals, which was very disappointing as the girls played extremely good cricket. The positive to take home was that we had beaten Australia twice in the tournament.
The Women in Blue continued performing well but it was only in 2017 that the team once again got to the finals. As per reports, 126 million people watched the India-England final at Lord’s on July 23.
In a matter of 12 years, the popularity of women’s cricket had grown by leaps and bounds and it was very heartening to see the girls getting their due recognition.
I happened to witness both the 2018 and the 2020 ICC Women’s T20 World Cups in the West Indies and Australia as a national selector and I must say that there was a sea of change from the 2005 World Cup.
The atmosphere in the stadium was electric. The 2020 edition witnessed record-breaking attendance at MCG and my first thought was women’s cricket has come of age.
I literally had goosebumps when I entered the stadium for the final and had tears of joy in my eyes to witness the excitement and buzz.
It was a huge moment for women’s cricket, but COVID-19 did have an immense impact on the sport. Our girls did not play international cricket for about a year and, obviously, there were no major ICC events. So, as we gear up for the 50-over World Cup in New Zealand, I am hoping that the tournament will be able to build on the success of the 2017 and 2020 editions. Women’s cricket needs more game time, more attention, and, obviously, the more we play, the more we stand to unearth brighter, younger talents.
And after a two-year hiatus, this tournament comes at a time when teams across the world are trying to overcome the COVID disruption and return to action.
Women’s cricket has come a long way from its formative years and India is now a team to reckon with. There was never a dearth of talent in our country. Our spinners were all world-class — Diana Edulji, Shubhangi Kulkarni, Sharmila Chakraborthy, and Neetu David.
Then came Jhulan Goswami and we had a world-class medium pacer, who won us matches. In the batting department, too, we were good, but the team did lose out on fitness and fielding.
That too has undergone a sea change since 2003. The focus has been on fitness and now it has got better with power-hitting since the advent of T20 matches.
The cricketing world now acknowledges India as a champion side. But the Cup has eluded us.
In all the three finals India entered, it seemed they were overwhelmed by the situation. The team should believe it is a world champion side, capable of winning the World Cup.
CWC 2022 is a great opportunity for the team to bring the coveted cup home. The team didn’t get the kind of preparation it would have wanted — due to the COVID-19 — but the players are already in New Zealand, getting acclimatised, playing a five-match ODI series with the host nation. Even though the results were not very encouraging, the Women in Blue won the final ODI comfortably.
READ: Women’s World Cup preview: Australia looks to rebound from 2017 heartbreak
It was heartening to see the return to form of the very adept Harman (Harmanpreet Kaur). With Smriti Mandhana and the ever-dependable Mithali Raj among the runs — supported by Dipti Sharma and the very-gifted Richa Ghosh — things seem to be looking up for the team.
In Shafali Verma and Richa, we have two very capable youngsters, who have shown tremendous maturity belying their age. They are delightful stroke-makers who can send the ball over the boundary with not much of an effort. They should be left alone to play their natural game. Sneh Rana and Pooja Vastrakar are the all-rounders who can bolster the middle order.
For a while now, India has been looking out for medium pacers who will support workhorse Jhulan. Even though Jhulan puts pressure from one end, it is important that Meghana Singh, Pooja Vastrakar, and Renuka Singh Thakur bowl tight. They should keep it stump-to-stump and make sure that they don’t concede too many runs. They are extremely talented, but you need to play smart cricket in a World Cup.
Both Meghana and Renuka are inexperienced and keeping that in mind, it is important that they don’t crumble under pressure.
As far as spinners are concerned, we need to take a call depending on the situation and the conditions.
I personally feel that the team can win the title. We have a good batting lineup. The batters should look out for singles and keep rotating the strike.
READ: ICC Women's World Cup 2022 FAQs: Full schedule, past winners, dates, match timings and all you need to know
In the T20 format, it is okay to hit the fours and sixes, but in the 50 overs game, the singles, and the twos — along with the big hits — make it count. Our bowlers should stick to bowling stump-to-stump, not giving the batters opportunities to play square of the wicket.
Spinners Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Poonam Yadav, and Sneh Rana will have a big role to play. Consistency should be the key for them. Since the team had the opportunity to land in New Zealand way ahead of the tournament, it must have got acclimatised to the conditions. Fielding and running between have always been a bit of a concern for our teams, which I am sure the support staff must be working on.
There has been talk about Mithali’s strike rate. I think she needs to stay on till the end and win us matches. Over the last few years, the strike rate has been a problem, but whenever she has stayed on at the crease for long, things have improved. In the World Cup, the team needs to be flexible with Mithali’s batting position and she should ideally come in at No. 4. With someone like her in the team, it is important to give her time to plan her innings. I am sure, the team management has chalked out a plan and Mithali, too, knows what she wants to do in the tournament.
I am sure all the players in the team will want to give a befitting gift to the two stalwarts, Mithali and Jhulan, who have served the game for so many years and were instrumental in putting India on top with their consistent performances.
Here’s wishing the Women in Blue the very best and looking forward to seeing Mithali and the team lift the Cup on April 3.
(The writer is a former India captain and head coach. She was also a member of the BCCI national selection committee till March 2020)