The Indian women’s cricket team will play their first home Test in nine years when they take on England on Thursday. Should they be playing more?
In a few dizzying hours, Kashvee Gautam and Vrinda Dinesh went from talented, uncapped youngsters to millionaires. Gautam and Dinesh were two of the most sought-after players at the Women’s Premier League (WPL) 2024 auction, which took place in Mumbai on Saturday. Dinesh, an exciting opener, became the first uncapped player to fetch more than a crore at a WPL auction, as she was signed on by the UP Warriorz for ₹1.3 crore. Moments later, Gautam, a fiery pacer who can contribute with the bat, became the joint most expensive buy of the day as Gujarat Giants acquired her for ₹2 crore.
Most of the big names in women’s cricket were not in the auction pool since they had been retained by their franchises. But to put it in perspective, Gautam fetched a bigger price tag this year than Indian captain Harmanpreet Kaur ( ₹1.80 crore) had in the Season 1 auction last year. As the teams are casting the net wider, bringing more fresh talent into the fold, WPL’s riches have started trickling down the order.
It’s an exciting time for women’s cricket. The proliferation of franchise leagues, like WPL, Women’s Big Bash League and The Hundred, as well as limited overs cricket has propped the sport to a new high. Amid the heady rise, though, Test cricket is teetering into irrelevance.
However, in a welcome change of pace, India will compete in a Test match against the visiting English team at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai, starting Thursday, 14 December. It is India’s first Test at home after nine years and the first time they will don the whites in more than two years. A week later, India will take on Australia in another one-off Test match at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium from 21-24 December. Though the rules are largely the same, one point of contention has been that women’s Test matches are played over four days, rather than the five for men.
“This year we have two Tests—one against England and one against Australia—and I hope those games can make a huge impact on women’s cricket and hopefully in the future we will keep getting more Test matches,” Harmanpreet Kaur had told Sky Sports Cricket Podcast in August this year. “As a player, I definitely want more Tests because as a growing kid, we saw more Tests on TV than T20s. Nowadays, it’s a lot of fun playing T20s but Test cricket is something every cricketer wants to play.”
The Indian women’s cricket team celebrates after winning gold in T20i at the Asian Games.
Despite Kaur’s optimism, the two Tests in December are the only red-ball cricket India are scheduled to play in the ongoing 2022-25 Future Tours Programme (FTP) cycle drawn out by the International Cricket Council.
The Indian women’s cricket team started their Test journey in 1976, with a six-match series against the West Indies. But since then, the longer format has been a rare occurrence in the cricket calendar. India has played only 38 Test matches since their debut. In the last 10 years, India has played only four Tests, as compared to 135 T20Is and 98 ODIs.
They last played a Test match in September-October 2021 against Australia in Carrara. It was the first, and only pink-ball Test that the Indian women have competed in. Playing their first day-night Test match on a bouncy Australian wicket, a strong Indian team, led by Mithali Raj, dominated the proceedings. Runs flowed from the bat of Smriti Mandhana, known as ‘Goddess of the off-side’. The star opener scored 127 to lift India to 377-8 (declared) in the first innings.
Australia couldn’t pile on the runs and declared their innings at 241-9. Though the match ended in a stalemate, it brought forth the quality, the drama and intricacies that make Test cricket so unique. But it hasn’t quite resulted in any substantial gains in terms of more match time.
The trend, however, is not unique to India. Players around the world have been denied a steady diet of Test cricket. England and Australia are slightly better off since, like their male counterparts, they battle for the Ashes, which has been a biennial affair since 2001. From 2013 onwards, the Ashes have been played as a multi-format series with a solitary Test. Since the turn of the century, only 33 women’s Test matches have taken place while in the same period there have been over 1000 Tests in men’s cricket.
The ICC raised the stakes for men’s Test matches by instituting the World Test Championships, where the top two teams over a two-year period compete for the trophy in the final. Meanwhile, the governing body is more interested in financially viable options for women’s cricket and Tests don’t quite fit the plan.
“If you look at the way cricket is going, there is no doubt that white-ball is the way of the future,” ICC chairperson Greg Barclay told the BBC in June 2022. “That is the game that is sought after by the fans, where the broadcasters are putting their resources, and what is driving the money. Therefore, the countries that are developing women’s cricket will focus on that. In order to play Test cricket, you have to have the structures in place domestically, and they don’t really exist. So, I can’t really see women’s Test or long-form cricket evolving at any speed at all.”
India’s domestic structure mirrors this emphasis on white-ball cricket. According to the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) domestic calendar, women cricketers are scheduled to play nine tournaments in 2023-24. Of them, eight are limited overs tournaments—either T20s or ODIs. The only multi-day event is the Vizzy Trophy, which is an inter-university tournament. Senior women have not played a red-ball domestic competition since the Women’s Cricket Inter Zonal Three-Day tournament in 2017-18.
The India and England Test squads.
“Definitely domestic cricket has to have one longer version tournament,” former India captain Diana Edulji was quoted as saying by The New Indian Express in November, after she became the first Indian women’s cricketer to be inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame. “If you want cricket to improve, you have to learn to play the longer version, then you can play all the versions. You have to get that temperament to stay at the wicket.”
A sound domestic structure is a big missing piece in the puzzle. But women’s cricket in India has come a long way in the last six years. India’s runners-up finish at the 2017 ODI World Cup was the moment when the country was shaken out of its indifference to the women’s game. With traditional and social media latching on to that glorious run, and amplifying their success, players like Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami were finally given their due.
BCCI, which has been governing Indian women’s cricket since 2006, took the first step towards pay parity in October last year. Indian women cricketers now get the same match fee as the men— ₹15 lakh for a Test, ₹6 lakh for an ODI and ₹3 lakh for a T20. In another breakthrough, the ICC announced in July 2023 that men and women would receive equal prize money at comparable ICC global events.
On the field too, the Indian women’s team is riding a wave of success. They reached the final at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and clinched a gold at the 2023 Hangzhou Asian Games, where the team made its debut. In the inaugural edition of the ICC Under-19 Women’s T20 World Cup in January this year, India emerged champions, confirming the depth in talent in the country. Launched in March this year, the WPL, hoping to mimic the success of the Indian Premier League, proved to be an instant hit.
Players, and connoisseurs of cricket, may still yearn for the romance of Test matches. But women’s game in India is going from strength to strength, with or without Test cricket.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.