A Women's Cricket Association of India match goes on in Kanpur

The WCAI continues to hold matches, like this one in Kanpur in 2008, but for players in its fold there's nothing further to aspire to

© Darshini Rami

The association of pioneering women

Derecognised, sidelined and cash-strapped, the body that began female cricket in India still keeps on doing what it does best

Snehal Pradhan  |  

When the BCCI began administering women's cricket in India in 2006, every girl and woman who played cricket in the country above a certain level came under its umbrella, myself included. It was a time of optimism. The natural evolution of women's cricket was finally encompassing India, and it seemed I would actually have a chance to make cricket my career. So I must admit I didn't spend a lot of time looking back at the organisation that until then had been the custodian of women's cricket in the country - the Women's Cricket Association of India (WCAI). I more or less didn't think about the WCAI at all till a few years later, when I learned, to my bemusement, that it was still conducting tournaments.

Women's cricket in India owes its birth and adolescence to the WCAI. It was founded in 1973, by volunteers and officials whose intentions were (mostly) noble, and who often spent out of their own pockets to cover costs. It meant players had to fight conditions off the field as well as opponents on it.

State cricketers - and for a long time, internationals too - earned nothing, and paid to play. If our tour accommodation had beds, it was a huge win; the usual arrangement was mattresses in a dormitory (or one a badminton court), and often a toilet was shared between more than one team. Tournaments were announced only a few weeks in advance, and the chances of getting 17 reserved seats in a train were about as good as those of the whole team winning the lottery on the same day. Return journeys were even more unpredictable, since matches were played in a knockout format. Kitbags were shared to reduce luggage, and everyone packed old newspapers to spread on the floor while the few available berths were shared in turn.

The adverse conditions acted like a sieve. Only those with a real passion for the game stuck around, so the cricket was often excellent. Some of India's best international results came under the WCAI.

In 2006, once the BCCI came into the picture, trains became planes, dormitories became hotel rooms, and newspapers were read rather than sat on. From never hoping to make money from cricket, we were suddenly the recipients of (very basic) match fees and daily allowances. We entered the world of neutral umpires, video analysis and semi-professional cricket. We could stop worrying about clean drinking water and focus more on the game.

There were downsides too. There weren't as many tournaments as before, the Under-16 age group was deemed unnecessary, and there were fewer international matches. Still, we thought things could only get better since funds were not a problem.

But physical and financial comforts were never the reason we switched to the BCCI. Our ultimate goal was to play for India, which was no longer possible under the WCAI.

The Indian team fielded by the WCAI had a fair resumé: from securing a Test win in their first official series, in 1976, to winning the New Zealand Centenary ODI tournament in 1995. The high points were reaching the final of the 2005 Women's World Cup in South Africa, and winning a Test series in England in 2006 (this was the first tour under the BCCI banner, but by a team developed entirely by the WCAI).

The WCAI hosted the 1997 Women's World Cup in India, relying on local businesses to chip in with funds. Here, Charlotte Edwards receives her Player-of-the-Match trophy for her 173 not out against Ireland in Pune

The WCAI hosted the 1997 Women's World Cup in India, relying on local businesses to chip in with funds. Here, Charlotte Edwards receives her Player-of-the-Match trophy for her 173 not out against Ireland in Pune © Getty Images

In 2005 the International Women's Cricket Council (IWCC) merged with the ICC. All ICC member boards were asked to follow suit; some had already done so. The BCCI was the last of the top eight countries to start administering women's cricket. They did it somewhat reluctantly, and not in the manner that the WCAI hoped. It was less amalgamation and more hostile takeover.

Former India captain Shubhangi Kulkarni was the secretary of the WCAI at the time. According to her, the WCAI had been in talks with the BCCI about a merger for several years. "We made a proposal to BCCI that they form national and state level women's committees and absorb the WCAI members," she remembers. A similar approach had been followed in the merger between the ICC and the IWCC, when a number of experienced IWCC administrators moved to the ICC Women's Cricket Committee.

The BCCI, though, had other ideas. It started its own independent administration for women's cricket, as did every state unit, only absorbing a handful of female administrators from the WCAI into a cricket committee that held no real power.

As the official custodian of female cricket in the country, the BCCI assumed the right to field the Indian team. The WCAI, whose logo the Indian team had worn for almost 30 years, suddenly found it was a port without a ship and crew. Kulkarni, in one of her final acts before resigning as WCAI secretary to join the BCCI committee, suggested that the WCAI be dissolved. Most other members didn't agree, and so it endured, a ghost of its former self.

In 2008, after two years of flux and confusion, Nutan Natu (nee Gavaskar) took over as the secretary of the WCAI, a post she has held ever since. Under her, the WCAI resumed organising tournaments, sometimes up to seven a year. They found players who didn't fit into the BCCI scheme of things, or into whose scheme of things the BCCI didn't fit.

"We have junior and senior nationals every year," Natu says. "Then there is the Rani Jhansi [senior inter-zonal] tournament. Then there are a number of invitational tournaments that [the WCAI] state associations organise on their own. On an average, ten state teams participate every year in the seniors, and about eight in the juniors."

It has been a tough ride, though. As before, the WCAI has no real financial backing, and it is up to its state associations to find sponsors when they want to host tournaments. There is constant attrition, in the form of players moving into the BCCI system. Due to lack of players or funds, not every state manages to send a team to the nationals every year. The best talent is with the BCCI, and the WCAI standard is far from ideal - but the players get to play.

WCAI officials are unhappy but undeterred by the fact that they cannot field an Indian team any more. Natu stresses that the WCAI's priority now is developing grass-roots cricket. "We get a lot of girls from rural areas. My aim is to give these girls a little exposure. Let them come out of their shells. They travel, they meet others; all this is good for women's empowerment. That is what we are looking at these days. Some girls have also secured jobs on the basis of our certificates."

The author and Gauri Gokhale (third and fourth from left) travelling with other players to a tournament in a train

The author and Gauri Gokhale (third and fourth from left) travelling with other players to a tournament in a train © Shweta Jadhav

Yet anger at the BCCI boils just under Natu's optimism. "They take away girls who are doing well. They have taken so many girls who have been playing under WCAI through sheer money power."

Most players make the switch for better career prospects, and to pursue their dream of representing the country. Natu insists that the WCAI has never stopped them, nor has it turned them away if they wanted to come back, although they are now rethinking this policy.

"The thing is," she says, "This way the BCCI doesn't go talent-hunting at all. They get ready-made talent. They get it all on a platter. At the time of the merger also they got it on a platter, the team was ready-made."

Natu is right on that charge. Not all state units of the BCCI have invested in grass-roots development. Unlike with boys, where the popularity of the game drives young males into the nearest net, female cricket needs concerted initiatives on the ground. Some associations are happy to continue fulfilling the basic requirement of putting together a state team simply by calling open trials and playing a handful of tournaments every year. So Natu's frustration at the BCCI skimming off the cream while the WCAI does the churning is understandable. "If there are 50 girls playing in a state, are all 50 girls given opportunities by the BCCI associations? What I gather is, they concentrate only on 20-odd players."

What of the players themselves, though? Why do they continue to play in WCAI tournaments? I spoke to a few, and saw a few broad categories.

The match-seekers
Manasvi Narayan (name changed) is an active player on the BCCI domestic circuit. However, she recently played a WCAI T20 tournament in the off season, when she was not registered with her state association (states forbid them from playing unofficial tournaments during the season). The reason she took this slightly risky step is that game time is a rare commodity in female cricket.

"We just want to play," Narayan says. "We get matches; that's what is important, it's okay if we don't get facilities."

In the current BCCI female domestic system, cricket is played in the one-day and T20 formats at the senior inter-state level, and in the three-day format at the senior inter-zonal level. This means that the best teams can play just seven one-day and seven T20 games a season. Players who qualify for their zone can play an additional four three-day games. There is an U-19 tournament and, since last year, an U-23 one. There is still no U-16 competition.

For the very best players and teams that is a decent amount of cricket. But players from states that don't qualify for the Super League, or those who are too old for age-group tournaments or too young to break into senior teams, end up training the whole year to play as few as eight matches. If they don't make both the one-day and the T20 teams, then just four. So Narayan's desire to play more matches is understandable.

Darshini Rami decided to return to WCAI after feeling dissatisfied with the BCCI's efforts to grow the game

Darshini Rami decided to return to WCAI after feeling dissatisfied with the BCCI's efforts to grow the game © Darshini Rami

The non-competitives
Then there are those who look to cricket as a recreational outlet. For a number of years, my new-ball partner for Maharashtra was Gauri Gokhale. She played cricket throughout her student years - a long time, considering she took an MSc, in chemistry - but once she began working, finding time for competitive cricket became difficult, and she stopped playing BCCI tournaments.

She still wanted to just play, though. But the reality was that there were no recreational tournaments for her to play in; no Sunday club cricket like in Australia, no female teams at clubs, like in England. She knew that without a full season of training behind her, she would not make the state team in the BCCI set-up. So when she heard that the WCAI was conducting a tournament, she jumped at the chance.

"I only played a couple of tournaments with WCAI, whenever I had some time off from work," she says. "It's still organised in much the same way as before, but I just wanted to play."

Both Narayan and Gokhale said that if the BCCI associations had regular games for them to play in, they would not have played the WCAI tournaments.

The aggrieved
When the BCCI launched female cricket programmes, there were some who didn't like the new set-up, for various reasons. Darshini Rami, after making the Gujarat team in the first year of the BCCI regime, lost her place. Frustrated by the lack of cricket for fringe players and the nepotism she perceived in the system, she gave up on BCCI tournaments altogether.

"The 15 they picked would be the only ones they focused on. What about the next generation?" says Rami, now 31. So she turned to the WCAI, and hasn't looked back since. "The WCAI doesn't give us money. They never did. But we want to play matches and practise regularly.

"There is a difference between playing four matches a year and 15 matches a year. Yes, there is trouble to get reservation [in trains], and travelling is difficult, but I'm happy here. Maa ko marva dete hain, aur baap khada ho jata hai. Aisa thodi na hota hai." [You can't just kill the mother and prop up the father.]

The case of Phebe Madhuri from Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh is more striking. Having attended BCCI trials at the recommendation of a WCAI official, she says she was not given a chance to either bat or bowl, and heard a selector say: "Yeh WCAI khiladi hai, isko to lenge nahi." [She is a WCAI player, we won't select her.]

After that experience, Madhuri stayed away from BCCI tournaments, preferring to play in the WCAI set-up, despite knowing she could never play for India while she was there. "Still it pains us that WCAI did not get the affiliation from ICC," she says. "We actually lost our futures, our careers. We did not want our juniors to lose their careers, so we tell them to play for BCCI." Madhuri remains an active player and doubles up as an organising secretary with the Andhra Pradesh Women's Cricket Association.

For players like Rami and Madhuri, cricket comes at a cost. To make time for the game she loves, Rami has switched jobs frequently in the last couple of years. However, needing to take more financial responsibility for herself and her family, she said goodbye to cricket for good last April. With neither financial rewards nor the promise of a pathway, it is a miracle she lasted this long.

Reports in Telugu newspapers about a state-level women's tournament (left); a list of Phebe Madhuri's cricketing achievements (right)

Reports in Telugu newspapers about a state-level women's tournament (left); a list of Phebe Madhuri's cricketing achievements (right)

Those in the dark
By all accounts, the majority of cricketers playing under the WCAI knew that it could not field an Indian team. One player, however, told me that she remained unaware of this for almost a decade.

Garima Sanghani (name changed) was 13 when the BCCI took over, but she continued training with her WCAI state association. While she knew that the BCCI ran cricket, the WCAI state official under whom she trained simply told her that it was different cricket. "They used to tell us that in the BCCI-affiliated state association, there is a lot of partiality. Nobody talked about that association much. We were not so mature, so we would believe whatever we were told."

The official in question denies Sanghani's charge, and cites the BCCI's own publicity as his defence. "From 2006 onwards the BCCI association gives ads in papers, and their scores appear there too. The girls know the players who play there, they play inter-universities together. So whoever told you this has given you wrong information."

Only in 2016 did Sanghani realise that she would not be able to fulfil her dream of playing for India through the WCAI. She then shifted to the BCCI state association. "I felt that I wasted ten years," she says.

The BCCI treats the WCAI like we treat food lodged in our teeth - mostly ignored, but occasionally dealt with in drastic fashion. According to Natu, the BCCI attempts to undermine the efforts of the WCAI. "If we book a ground somewhere, they will immediately come and say, 'We have our tournament there.'"

The BCCI, in turn, reiterates the lack of official sanction for the WCAI. "We are the official body for cricket," says a BCCI official. "Those who want to join BCCI can join and those who want to play there can remain there and play." The official stresses that players who were registered with the BCCI could face action if they play for the WCAI. "You cannot be registered with two different associations."

Yet the only reason the WCAI continues to exist is because the BCCI allows them to, filling a gap that has no business existing. With no club structure in most states, and few academies to nurture 2nd XIs, the BCCI associations have underestimated how many women and girls actually want to play cricket, and how badly.

The author (centre) with other junior cricketers in a dormitory during an U-15 tournament in Jamshedpur

The author (centre) with other junior cricketers in a dormitory during an U-15 tournament in Jamshedpur

On the other hand, while the WCAI provides players game time, it causes a split in the talent pool, keep ing a number of girls out of the BCCI system, and thus further away from their dreams of wearing an India shirt.

Still, if it should dissolve, that would probably not help the cause of players. The WCAI has a presence in areas where the BCCI does not, especially outside the cities. Many players would lose their only connection to the game, and others might find themselves entering a system where the administrators are less than enthusiastic.

The BCCI official quoted above unequivocally rules out any possibility of a merger between the BCCI and WCAI, but Natu is still hopeful that a middle ground will be found. She believes that women's cricket should be run by those who actually care about it. "I'm a positive person. I hope a merger will happen or they might provide funding to us. The BCCI is so rich that they are funding other sports, they might as well do it for women's cricket."

She imagines a world where the genuine interest of (some) WCAI officials meets the funds and facilities of the BCCI. "There are people willing to run it in a nice way, put their heart and soul into it. As compared to someone who is not interested, who will do it better?"

Snehal Pradhan is a former India and Maharashtra opening bowler, and now a freelance journalist. @SnehalPradhan