This post first appeared in my column ''Seamstress'' for Wisden India.
|Jhulan Goswami will be one of the old guard of players who finally benefit through women's contracts.|
With the BCCI's announcement that central contracts will be introduced for the Indian women's cricket team, a collective exhalation could be heard from those who were holding their breath for the last few months. Ever since the BCCI announced their intention to do so, there had been unbridled excitement, loud scepticism, and a quiet optimism that women's cricket will see better days.
As it stands, credit must be given to the current BCCI administration for walking the talk. By introducing graded central contracts, they have shown as concrete their intention to develop women's cricket.
As per the BCCI announcement, eleven players have been contracted to start with. The four players who find themselves in Grade 'A' will earn Rs. 15 lakhs per year, while the remaining seven in grade 'B' will be paid Rs. 10 lakhs a year.
The move will come as a boon to all female players who have been included in the list, who will now be free from financial insecurity. Currently, the vast majority of female players were dependent on jobs with the Railways, who are almost the sole recruiters of female cricketers across India. (To give you an idea, ten of the 15 players in India' most recent ODI squad are employed with Railways.) However, this means that railway duties would take up a certain amount of the athlete’s time, which meant that India's players always remained semi- professional at best. By introducing central contracts, the eleven players now have the financial freedom to train full time as professionals.
Also, by stipulating that those players who play at least three international games will be include in the Grade 'B' list, the BCCI has created an environment of healthy competition amongst the players in the fringes, and left the door open for deserving candidates to join the club.
But were contracts necessary as a motivating factor in the first place? Certainly not. Female cricketers have been playing for nothing but the love of the game until the early 2000's. The reason senior players in the Indian team had been pushing for contracts to be implemented, is that India were lagging behind.
England were the first to introduce a contract-like system in 2008, by appointing some players as ambassadors in the now hugely successful 'Chance To Shine' program. Australia followed suit soon after, linking their national team contracts to ambassadorial roles in their Females In Cricket strategy. Sri Lanka, the West Indes, South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand also joined the contract bandwagon –with different levels of financial assistance - which meant that India was the only major team left out.
This offered a huge competitive advantage to the other sides, whose progress have left India eating their dust on a number of occasions. In the last four years alone, India have conceded series losses -some on home soil- against Sri Lanka, South Africa and the West Indes. From being a top four team, India have slipped to the bottom half of the pecking order in the ICC women’s championship, despite having no shortage of talent. With the central contracts in place, the core members of the Indian squad can now afford to train as professionals, like many of their opposing numbers already do.
However with professional contracts come the expectations of results. It is pertinent to note that most other national teams were handed contracts on the back of consistent improvements in international performances. While the England women became fully professional after retaining the Ashes in Australia, the Southern Stars received a huge pay hike after their hat-trick of world T20 titles. The Indian women on the other hand, have blown hot and cold over the last year and a half, putting in some good performances in the test format, but struggling in the shorter formats. India are receiving contracts more out of necessity than reward. The BCCI has awarded contracts lest it be left behind, not that it may forge ahead.
Also, the build up to awarding contracts to their women's teams differed with most other countries. Contracts, particularly with the English and Australian women's teams, were a natural progression of the increase of the standard of cricket in the domestic and national sides, which led to more revenue through better viewership and more sponsors. The more money the boards invested developing their national and domestic women’s setups, the better the performances, and the more money they attracted. The goal of the boards involved was to grow women's cricket from a game that needed financial assistance to one that could ''stand on its own two feet commercially through ticket sales and attracting commercial partners'' according to Clare Connor, revolutionary head of women's cricket at the ECB. Whether the BCCI holds such plans for its team remains to be seen.
Looking forward, there are a few more financial consolidations that the BCCI still could make to crystallise the initiative it has taken to make cricket a more inviting career option for young women. One of these is an increase in match fees at domestic level. Such a move has been proposed in the BCCI annual report. While contracts will benefit only a score of players, an increase in match fees will benefit the hundreds who play in the domestic circuit. This will also help bridge the gap between the standards of cricket of domestic cricketers and international cricketers.
And within the Indian setup, the BCCI would do well to introduce higher match fees for those who play in the playing XI, as opposed to the current system of equal payment for all squad members. It will only increase fairness in selection, competition within the team for places, and accountability.
The game of catch up now begins. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, the awarding of contracts is a trifle for an organisation with pockets as deep as the BCCI’s. Will the women’s team be awarded a long term vision of progress, and the people and commitment required to achieve it? The new BCCI administration must take the famous riddle of the sphinx one step further. They must take women’s cricket from being a creature that walks on three legs in the evening, to two the next dawn.