Mithali Raj interview: ‘Indian women’s cricket team has reached a stage where reaching knockouts isn’t enough’

The last couple of weeks have been a watershed moment for women’s cricket in India. Be it the grand launch of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) which saw the five franchises being bought for Rs 4,669 crore or the Indian team winning the inaugural edition of the Under-19 World Cup, women’s cricket made the headlines for all the right reasons. With the Women’s World Cup kicking off in South Africa, it will remain in news. Former India captain and legend of the game Mithali Raj, who was named mentor and advisor of Gujarat Titans – the expensive WPL franchisee – spoke to The Indian Express in a free-wheeling chat. Excerpts from the interview:

The launch of WPL, Under-19 success and the overall attitude suggest India has woken up to women’s cricket big time. How far has the game travelled in recent years?

I would say a huge factor in all of this is the televising of matches and the digital platform. In the current age, everyone is on a phone so any news just carries off in seconds. And the more you watch things on the screen or mobile phone, the absorption level only increases. The more the matches are on television, the more content about women’s cricket, people are curious and eager to watch. And with the standard getting better, more and more people are keen to see.

And what does this success bring to the table?

This U-19 World Cup title showed there is talent at that level. The potential is so much that it can be groomed and in a couple of years or three years with the WPL, we can say Australia – who have been dominant through the years – have a serious contender. Earlier, people used to say there is not much of a talent pool. And I would say at the senior level, there is a limited talent pool. But with the WPL and franchises coming in, the scouting will start and parents will also get assurance that even at Under-19 level, their kids can represent India. Honestly, how many of them can crack the India senior team without Under-19 cricket? Not everybody gets a chance to be part of the 15. With U19 cricket, a completely different set of 15 can represent India. So what happens because of this is, they start young, schools will give them a shot at representing India at Under-19 level and that will increase the pool of players in Under-14s and Under-16s. When they think they can graduate into the senior side, they will have more players to come out of Under-19.

Do you think Indian women’s cricket is at a stage where they are now expected to win ICC titles?

Yes. We have reached a stage where reaching the knockouts is not enough. If you were to compare ourselves with the rest of the world other than Australia and England or even New Zealand, there are other teams who are at a stage where we were a few years back. If we are getting all the facilities — hike in match fees, getting the camps we required and going early to acclimatise, then yes. The expectations will once increase. People will not be content with just playing the semi-finals and final. They will be expected to win.

Have we arrived on par with England and Australia? Or does India still have some catching up to do?

I would say (long think and a pause)… we have not really arrived there yet, but maybe in terms of standards, yes. But overall, in a couple of years with the WPL coming in, we would. Those countries have their leagues in place (Women’s Big Bash and The Hundred). Somewhere, whoever comes in as a replacement, they are equally good in terms of bench strength. We are not entirely there, but we will eventually get there in a year or two depending upon how WPL starts to roll.

With the women’s cricket ecosystem growing, how do you see the graduation happening?

It is healthy to have an ecosystem where they are graduating at their own pace rather than fast-track them into the senior level. There are many cricketers that I’ve seen in my career who do well in Under-19 and are immediately fast-tracked into the senior team without two-three years of experience. And once they don’t do well at the senior level, they are never able to come back. So it is important to have Under-16s, Under-19s where the gradual growth of the player is important and they can sustain at a higher level. The sustainability will be there only where there is a gradual growth. Not a knee-jerk growth because that is going to survive only for a limited period. And once they go through the grind, they will keep improving. And I’m sure the emerging players tournament and India A will be in place once a larger pool is in place. Those matches will also help them.

Has the time come for a separate wing for women at the NCA?

The busier women’s cricket gets and more tournaments they play, you need to have a separate wing to run women’s cricket. One person can’t manage everything and you need to have someone managing women’s cricket separately. There will be a lot of camps and senior-level matches also. It will in fact help if there is a separate women’s wing. But that is at the discretion of the BCCI.

How do you see the domestic circuit?

The domestic system, unlike men’s cricket, we don’t have too many matches. We have senior one-day league and Super League and same with T20. In the domestic circuit, we don’t have too many tournaments. So the players are heavily reliant only on these tournaments. And in these tournaments, if you happen to be a finalist you get to play all matches, and still roughly end up with 15 games a year. That is not enough. Those games will not give you enough exposure. In that sense, with the WPL, and scouting and camps, there will be a proper system to nurture it. Then players don’t really have to stress themselves to perform in one tournament. You get another shot at WPL. There is going to be another opportunity where if you do well, you are once again on the radar of the selectors.

Is there more space in the calendar?

If you have more tournaments with limited players, it will seem like too much in a year, because the same set of players will have to play all of those. But if you have a bigger pool of players, not necessarily your senior or seasoned players have to play every tournament. They can pick and choose and that will happen only when you have a big pool of players.

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