"Dominance" is a word often overused in a cricket context, but if there's one team that epitomizes it in its true sense it's Railways, who are impossible to look past in the rich history of women's cricket.
Across the 16 editions of the Senior Women's ODI Trophy held since 2006/07, Railways have clinched the title a jaw-dropping 13 times. They've only failed to make the final twice, and on the other occasion they didn't win, the knockout stages were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019/20.
Quite predictably, Railways emerged as champions of the 2020/21 edition that culminated on 20th November 2021 at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. The star-studded Mithali Raj-led side blew away hosts Karnataka in the final, further underlining their dominance in the sport.
For a long time now, most states have lost their best players to the Railways, simply because joining the team means a stable base of employment. As recently as the final, Karnataka-born Rajeshwari Gayakwad (who has been representing Railways for the past 5-6 years) turned out for them, diminishing the hosts' chances of proving to be a challenge for their rivals.
Logically, there isn't much that can be done to keep players away from a lucrative job at the Railways. Karnataka women's team head coach Mamatha Maben, though, feels that the situation could be circumvented by adding another more competitive layer between the Nationals and the Challengers - the inter-zonals.
The 51-year-old coach is of the opinion that a five-team zonal competition could help establish a stronger connection for the players with their home zones, and in the process also select the best of players for the Challenger Trophy.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Maben shed light on how a zonal system could further enhance the quality of women's cricket in India and shared her thoughts on the recent pay hike at the domestic level.
Q. There's a pressing issue prevalent that most players are groomed in their states but eventually land up playing for Railways. How is this something that can be stopped to retain talent in their state?
Unfortunately, we are helpless, they are here to stay. At the national level, we can't do anything because they (Railways) are the 'Annadaata' (bread-winners). You have to learn to get better than them to beat them, there are no two ways about it. However, I feel there is some kind of solution for this. What I've always been advocating is that when the Nationals happen, you pick five teams or zones. Let each player play for their respective zone (according to their mother-state). Railways do not need representation at the Zonal level since they as an institution are getting their due at the Nationals. So the Zonals can technically be our premier tournament.
For example, Mithali hails from Hyderabad, so she has to play for South Zone, so also Harry (Harmanpreet Kaur) can play from North, and Smriti (Mandhana) from the West, and so on. Let each player play for their respective zones and automatically, this will become the premier tournament in the country. You see where we go with this, it can solve quite a few issues. We will have the best of the five teams playing.
Right now, I am of the opinion that the Challengers are not our top-notch tournament. People come from everywhere and it is a mix, but when you play for a particular zone, you have that representation or identification. When you are representing Challenger A or B, you don't have that feeling, and to top it, there they will look to give chances, exposure etc. That won't happen much in a zone format.
Can you imagine if something like this is put in place, the cream of talent will be there, and it should be made mandatory for all the top players to be part of this tournament. There should be more like a 15-day window that will host the premier tournament.
Unfortunately, apart from the Railways, we don't have any other job opportunities. Men's cricket has banks, oil corporations etc they can represent which are not part of BCCI. That's why very few male cricketers go to the Railways, plus they get hefty contracts from the state itself, so why will they go play somewhere else? As Snehal Pradhan (former India cricketer) said, if you can offer a contract of say 5-7 lakh or so, people may not leave their job and go, at least give them something here. However a few will still go, you can't stop that from happening since a permanent job is a permanent job.
Unless the banks start absorbing us, Railways are here to stay. All we can do is create another format where we have five teams in a smaller window. You will have the best of the country playing, that is the real competition. This is what I feel. Mainly, this should not be diluted, which means even Harry and Smriti will also have to be present.
Even beating the Railways, it's happened before but they are few and far in between. You know, there's only a 20-30% chance of beating them if something brilliant or a one-man show happens.
The only thing we need is to circumvent this and create one more slab. There used to be a time when the Railway players would represent the Central Zone. Why? As an institution, they were anyhow not representing Railways but a zone? In this format, the Central Zone players were short-changed. So I feel every player representing their own zone would be the best way forward.
Truth be told, scrapping the inter-zonal system to get in the Challengers has actually set us back a little.
My request is to let the Challengers be there, but whoever does well in the Zonals should make the 3-pronged Challenger team (Red, Blue & Green). Here, in the current Challengers system, you know some players are getting a spot without scoring against some not-so-strong sides.
If you do well in the Zonals and then go to the Challengers, then you know the best of the best have reached there; that one link is missing right now. My only request to the BCCI is to re-introduce that format and let everybody play for their zones, then we will be adding a really strong, competitive layer to the sport.
Q. Quite recently, the pay scale for women cricketers was altered, and it seems a decent jump. However, do you think that's enough, considering the lack of matches as well?
See from where we started, we've come a long way. Especially now that they've made 20,000 per match. I won't say it's enough but it's substantial. It's enough to survive. For example, in the Senior Women’s ODI tournament, they played 5+3, a total of 8 matches and earned 1.6 lakh rupees. If they happen to play T20s and the U-23 games, they stand to make a good 2-3 lakhs. This is not the case for everybody. The lower end would be just a lakh or so, but it is a welcome step.
Earlier I'd cringe because our players would dedicate a whole year and they would end up with just 80,000 or a lakh, which is nothing. 2-3 lakhs is still something but we've got to look at the broader picture; where other countries are going with this.
Where Australia have done well is they've bridged the gap between international and domestic cricket. In India, there is a lot of money for international cricketers, and somehow for the domestic cricketers it's just not percolating down, that's my only concern.
The BCCI has a lot of funds, but it's for the cream. We need to let it percolate down to the lower levels, and then we can retain more talent. As of now, we are still losing talent and at one point, they have to decide, because what is available here is not enough to sustain in this day and age.
Elsewhere, these players can easily get a package of 7-8 lakhs, even if you've done a basic degree you can earn 4-5 lakhs. Most of our cricketers are well educated, they're doing MBAs and all of that, so to retain them is difficult. So on that front, I'd like to request the BCCI to have a contract system even at the domestic level where we can sustain and retain the talent, and we don't have to let them go away to the Railways. I still feel a few of them will go, but some of them will stay back.
They know that they might not get too many chances because, for instance, Indrani Roy or Tutti are only warming the benches. So some people may not go to the Railways because they know they will not get the exposure.
Overall this is a huge jump, I think four years back we were at 3,500 but going forward BCCI has the capacity to make a contract system in the domestic scene. If that happens, we can compete on an equal footing against countries like Australia or England, who are doing a lot for their women cricketers.
Q. What are your thoughts on women's cricket being promoted, and to some extent taking baby steps towards matching the popularity of men's cricket?
I personally feel there's a special pocket of fans who aren't that excited about men's cricket but are excited about women's cricket. These are the first people we have to cater to, and the rest will follow. When the women's World Cup takes place and then it gets over, I feel a vacuum; there may be many people like me.
I feel people see a combination of power & grace in women's cricket, hence we have a special pocket of fans, and that grace factor has faded off to a great extent in men's cricket, given a combination of flat decks & power hitting. Now with the power factor coming into women's cricket, it's a great combination of power, grace, swing and movement, so it's more of a holistic package.
Sometimes when we watch men's cricket it's really putting off, because instead of a bowler you might as well put a bowling machine there. Somebody scores 330, the opposition comes back with 340. Yes, it is entertainment, but there is an imbalance and you can't watch it day in and day out.
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In the women's game, there's a power factor with sixes and all, and there's a grace factor. So it's a fuller package, and there are people longing for it. We need to be more proactive in catering to those fans.