India v South Africa women’s squad: What selection controversies say about the system

India Women

In the absence of well-defined pathways and competitive bridge tournaments such as a women’s IPL, Indian women’s cricket selection remains controversial.

Until 10 days before the proposed series start, players’ selfies on social feeds were about as close as we got to confirmation of the India v South Africa women’s ODIs and T20Is in Lucknow. The selected squad was already at the venue and in quarantine. The opposition were in the air over the Indian Ocean in their masks and PPEs. But there was still no official squad announcement from the BCCI. The composition of the team for India’s first international assignment since a historic finals appearance at the Women’s T20 World Cup last March was as uncertain as the whole year had been.

When the squad announcement finally came, it “raised a few eyebrows”, as several publications delicately put it. Incredulous fans were less charitable.

The new selection committee had left out Shikha Pandey, India’s leading ODI wicket-taker since her debut in August 2014, chosen in ICC’s ODI Team of the Year for 2019, a star of their 2020 T20 World Cup run and the player with the best all-round figures against South Africa. So too with Taniya Bhatia, a wicketkeeper who had impressed no less than Adam Gilchrist during the World Cup run and who, in just two short years, is in the all-time top five for T20I dismissals. Also missing was Ekta Bisht, a spin bowler on the verge of being the quickest all time to 100 ODI wickets, with an excellent record with the new ball. Six uncapped players were named across two squads.

If this were a men’s squad, the panel would have had to explain their picks on TV interviews and take questions in press conferences. But around the women’s, there was official silence.    

But this piece is not about making a case for individual players who have been dropped. It isn’t to question the new players picked – who, by all accounts, are talented and good at what they do.

This piece is about the apparent randomness in selection and what that says about the high-performance pathways in Indian women’s cricket.

The India Women squad was at the venue and in quarantine before the names for the South Africa series were made public. Photo: Ekana Cricket Media
The squad was at the venue and in quarantine before the names were made public. Photo: Ekana Cricket Media

What are pathways?

What Rahul Dravid does through the U19 and India A programmes and at the NCA. What happens year after year at the IPL. Why a second-string Indian team is still able to win a Test series in Australia. All those are down to pathways.

‘Pathways’ are a fundamental pillar of any sports programme. They chart out how a young girl who picks up her brother’s bat at home can go on to play sport for leisure or become a World Cup winner. How she goes from building the basics of ‘physical literacy’ – how to swing a bat, how to hold a ball, how to run and catch – to mastering athletic skills. 

Walk further down the competitive pathways, past the school cricket, club cricket, age-group and regional cricket, and you get to the high-performance pathways. Where these are well-defined, the player will be nurtured as per their stage of development, and given the technical, emotional and financial support they need to make that leap into the national team. For example, a promising player identified as being maybe two years away from a place in the national side needs different guidance from one who is four years away. Similarly, because these pathways are fluid, when a national team player loses form, she drops down a level to work her way back up again. And ideally, she benefits from clear communication about how she can make it back into the side.
An example of the pathways in England women’s cricket

Officials are guided by performances in high-quality competitive matches as they make their assessments about who is promoted through the pipeline. 

When there are gaps in the elite programme – say the national team needs to improve its boundary percentage or a better strike-rate in the powerplay – the high-performance pathway helps address the issues.

However, this system is inconsistent, if not absent, in Indian women’s cricket. Think of a ladder with a few rungs rusty and rotten. Or a Google map where the GPS signal is lost – you know where you want to be, but don’t know the best way to get there.

Unlike for the boys, there is no robust U16, U19 or A programme; these happen in bits and pieces. Different states follow different pathways and produce players of different standards. And the big IPL-sized hole can’t quite be filled by a four-day exhibition tournament that is the T20 Challenge, leaving the three-team, double round-robin 50 and 20-over Challenger Trophies with a lot of heavy lifting to do.

“There a huge gap between international and domestic cricket. That gap needs to be lessened.”

Smriti Mandhana, India T20I vice-captain

These systemic limitations have significant consequences for new recruits as well as established internationals.

Which brings us back to the latest controversy.

Ability gap

After the squad announcement for the South Africa series, Sportstar got a quote from “a BCCI insider” (that ubiquitous cloak of anonymity behind which so many unpopular decisions are hidden) about wanting to “groom the youngsters” and “test the bench strength”. “Sometimes, you need to give chance to other players,” said Harmanpreet Kaur, the T20I captain, vaguely at the pre-series press conference. “When you didn’t play too much cricket, you need to take chances.”

That is a welcome sentiment. However, it is also exactly the kind of thing that high performance pathways and bridge tournaments are for, rather than vaulting players straight from inter-state cricket to internationals.

A week previously, when the India men’s T20I squad v England had been announced, Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan were among the call-ups. Both are uncapped, but if you’ve watched IPL, you already know what magic ‘Sky’ can do and how far Kishan has come from his U19 and India A days. When they make their India debuts, they will do so with plenty of experience behind them, having played at a level just below internationals.   

However, India women’s new recruits are nowhere as prepared. As Smriti Mandhana herself said in 2019 while leading the side against England, “There a huge gap between international and domestic cricket. That gap needs to be lessened.”  

This ‘ability gap’, ie the difference in standard between domestic cricket and international cricket, has been identified by several reports, including Equal Hue and FICA’s latest report, as a significant issue in women’s cricket. Given this, new faces, however talented, are being thrown in the deep end of international cricket without proper preparation and potentially being set up to struggle when they come up against a marauding Alyssa Healy or Marizanne Kapp. When they can’t keep up, they either don’t get a consistent run or are dropped.   

So, while the ambition to include six uncapped players in the squad is laudable, there is little precedence to show that they are ready for international cricket. 

Pathways reflect what Rahul Dravid does through the U19 and India A programmes and at the NCA. It’s what happens year after year at the IPL. The result of this work is that a second-string Indian team is still able to win a Test series in Australia. But this system is inconsistent, or absent, in women’s cricket.

Often, the reason given for not starting a women’s IPL is that there isn’t enough depth in women’s cricket in India to have a four/six/eight-team event. Yet, in choosing players based on performances in state matches, a contradictory message is going out: that this depth is good enough for the national side, which is supposed to be your best XI, but not good enough for a women’s IPL.   

Not prioritising high performance also does a disservice to established players, who despite strong numbers have lost their places while “the bench is tested”. In an ideal system, someone like Pandey or Bhatia, who is among the elite group of international players, would have been pushed to raise their standards because of the healthy competition they face from those just one rung below, who have proved themselves in bridge tournaments. Like a KL Rahul keeping the more established Shikhar Dhawan on his toes, and in turn facing some heat from Kishan for a place in the top order. Competition for places makes the team better; however, shifting goalposts of performance and completely dropping a player only means they always have the fear of a sword over their head.

There is also generally no clarity given to dropped players about how they can break back into the XI, and no support offered to them while they wait, unless it comes from a friendly coach. 

The Equal Hue survey found most players didn't share the opinion that there was not enough depth for a women's IPL.
The Equal Hue survey found most players didn’t share the opinion that there was not enough depth for a women’s IPL.

Systemic change

To be fair, a wonky foundation is not a problem limited to India. One of the five key findings of the second FICA report on women’s cricket released a few months ago was that “professional structures must improve”, with 88% of current players globally agreeing that “improving domestic cricket structures is very important when it comes to safeguarding the future of the sport”. Australia’s Healy and England captain Heather Knight wrote: “Providing an aspirational career path for more young girls in more countries must be the game’s aim.”

The report highlights the problem of “tokenism” ie. “significant focus on things that ‘look good’ … without sufficient focus and investment in building genuinely sustainable and equitable foundations”.   

If this new-look Indian team and the new call-ups succeed – and one wishes them nothing less – it still won’t prove that these were inspired selection calls. Because talent is not in question. It never was. What is in question is the willingness to invest in talent for a long period of time. Until then, selection will seem random, and team success will be despite the system, not because of it.   

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