Ugly and unfortunate.
Those words best summarise how the episode of Mithali Raj’s exclusion from the Indian playing XI for the World Twenty20 semifinal against England in the Caribbean has panned out.
First, Mithali’s contribution to the sport needs to be put in perspective. Right from her debut as a 16-year-old against Ireland in 1999, she has been at the centre of every pivotal moment in women’s cricket in India. She, along with Jhulan Goswami, kept the fire burning with some stunning performances during the drought years, and the rewards came in the form of the emergence of a good crop of youngsters, a stretch of 16 consecutive One-Day International wins – only behind Australia’s world record 17, the final appearance in the 2017 World Cup and a World T20 semifinal slot after eight years.
Almost a sole performer when there were hardly any world-beating women cricketers from India, and having served the country with utmost dedication for two decades, Mithali has every reason to feel aggrieved for not playing the semifinal despite being fit. It was the first time since she has established as the leading face of the Indian team that her role came under such scrutiny. It is no surprise that this hurt her deeply. The situation is not dissimilar to what happened with Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly when Greg Chappell was the men’s team coach.
Mithali laid her anguish bare in a 2040-word email to Rahul Johri and Syed Saba Karim, BCCI’s CEO and GM respectively, pointing out her issues with Ramesh Powar, the coach, and Diana Edulji, the former India captain and one of the two-member Committee of Administrators (CoA).
Powar was equally scathing about Mithali in his report submitted to the CEO-GM duo. Differences between a coach and a senior player are not uncommon in sport. It’s a case of two strong personalities with different thought processes coming head to head, but those exchanges should not have left the BCCI headquarters.
It is unfair for anyone without the direct know of things to take sides. If Powar’s word is gospel, then Mithali’s behaviour, when the team needed all energies to be directed towards the common goal of winning the title, reeks of immaturity and casts serious doubt over the dressing room culture. Similarly, Mithali’s version exposes Powar’s lack of man-management skills. Powar, who had an ordinary international career, squandered a golden opportunity to create a legacy for himself.
It is one adult’s word against the other’s, and the more you read those two emails the more you feel the pain over the state of affairs. More pain because by leaking four emails on the matter (the other two were written by Trupti Bhattacharya, the manager, and Amitabh Chaudhary, the acting secretary) to the media in a space of few days, the concerned people have played a dirty game.
Mithali and Powar have been used as pawns in a larger political agenda. An intelligent guess is enough to identify the motive behind the leaks – a conscious attempt to camouflage public perception and divert attention from more serious matters that have been dominating the discourse in recent days.
It insults the integrity of two cricketers, who make the sport what it is in this country. A wider audience has got involved, and the majority seem to be supporting Mithali. The way Powar has been vilified with his personality shredded to pieces is humiliating.
While Powar has subtly tried to put his point across by tweeting a few inspirational messages, Mithali has been more forthright. Her tweet where she called the episode to be the “darkest day of my life” has expectedly received enormous sympathy. When a business stalwart like Anand Mahindra openly supports Mithali, the issue gets further resonance.
I'm deeply saddened & hurt by the aspersions cast on me. My commitment to the game & 20yrs of playing for my country.The hard work, sweat, in vain. Today, my patriotism doubted, my skill set questioned & all the mud slinging- it's the darkest day of my life. May god give strength — Mithali Raj (@M_Raj03) November 29, 2018
If deeply examined, all the answers emerging from Mithali’s tweet may not be soothing to the ears, but she is entitled to her view. Her not playing the semifinal was a tactical error, but BCCI should not have allowed theatrics to take over a cricketing matter.
There is little respect left between Powar, whose three-month contract expired on Friday, and Mithali. It will be a miracle if the two co-exist now in the team. Based on her performances, Mithali holds a strong ground. Powar's departure will undo all the good work he did, something many in the team have vouched for. It's a two-way loss for Indian cricket.
This is where strong heads like Sharad Pawar, Shashank Manohar, N Srinivasan, Lalit Modi and Anurag Thakur – all of who were autocratic but ran the board smoothly – are missed. Suresh Menon asked a philosophical question in one of his recent columns for The Hindu.
“What is the price we are willing to pay for efficiency? The three unwise men (Srinivasan, Modi, Thakur) each had issues with teamwork, personal egos and what might be called today Trumpian self-importance. But they ran efficient organisations, and Indian cricket benefited.”
Srinivasan was not a big fan of women’s cricket, but that is beside the point here. Ever since COA has taken charge, there have been resignations or sackings of three coaches across the men’s and women’s team. It cannot be wished away as a coincidence. The women’s team could now have its fourth coach in the space of 19 months. Such arbitrary changes cannot be good for the health of any team. It becomes a breeding ground for more disharmony.
The leaked emails have larger connotations. Women’s cricket in India, since its inception in 1970s, has always operated in a difficult and ad-hoc atmosphere. Lack of funds and poor management were big issues when Women’s Cricket Association of India was the controlling body. The Indian team, for example, did not play a single game between their tour of England in 1986 and the trip to Australia in 1991. There was just one series between the 1997 and 2000 World Cups.
Few opportunities and last-minute arrangements during rare series frustrated the players, making them wary of their surroundings. Protecting one’s own interest became a recurring theme.
Building trust among the stakeholders was usually a challenge. There was a spur in activities after BCCI took charge in 2006, but things went cold once again around 2010 till ICC populated the calendar with the 50-over Championship in 2014. It resulted in India producing one of its best stretches. Now this leaked email has undone the small steps taken in the last few years. Players will once again find it hard to trust BCCI, their employers.
Look at the prevailing atmosphere. Windies, the other semifinalists, and England, the runners-up, are celebrating their run at the World T20, but not a single Indian player except for Poonam Yadav has said anything about their experience in the Caribbean. They are all in a shell, not wanting to risk their chances by saying anything that could potentially be twisted out of context or perceived wrongly.
Such a fearful and restrained environment puts a lot of unhealthy pressure on the players to perform, which is not a mind space anyone wants to be in. Bluntly put, there is simply no one to care for women cricketers in India. The board has to be accountable for this; a bit too much to expect when they removed the three-day inter-zonal tournament from the 2018-19 domestic calendar without making an official announcement.
This entire saga reminds one of Sudhesh Bhosle’s famous number from early 1990s – ‘Yeh duniya ek circus hai, hum saare joker hai’ - (The world is a circus, and we all are jokers).
The brighter side of this controversy is that people are talking about women’s cricket. No one, though, with the best interest of women’s cricket at heart would want this kind of mileage. Till BCCI does not put the vision 2020 document that former captain Shubhangi Kulkarni and others submitted to Thakur into practice, there won’t be an end to this ugly farce.
(Sidhanta Patnaik has reported on six ICC men's and women's tournaments. He is the co-author of The Fire Burns Blue - A history of women's cricket in India. @sidhpat)