Railways are the defending champions. ©Facebook
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In the book The Fire Burns Blue – A history of women’s cricket in India, co-authored by Karunya Keshav and this correspondent, we compare majority of women cricketers in the country with stage designers. Despite being in a highly creative profession, stage designers are the unsung heroes of the theatre world.

Even as the public is highly opinionated about Mithali Raj’s non-inclusion from the World Twenty20 semifinal against England, and even as the visibility of Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues, Veda Krishnamurthy and Jhulan Goswami has risen, many women cricketers in India go about their business season after season without much recognition. They are faceless in many ways, acknowledged only through their names on online scorecards. They play cricket in a small window within a domestic season that runs from August to May, and those who do not hold a job with Indian Railway go back to working to make a living in the off-season.

For these cricketers, the happiest pockets of the year come when there is on-field action. The T20 Challenger Trophy, which India Blue won, in August marked the beginning of the 2018-19 season, but then there was no cricket for more than three months except for practice sessions as focus shifted towards India’s tour of Sri Lanka, Australia A’s trip to India and the World T20. The hunger to get back into the groove will come to the fore when the senior domestic season resumes with the inter-state 50-over competition  on Saturday (December 1). To be played in 12 venues, of which only the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore is of international standard, the final is scheduled at Alur on December 31.

It will be first time that the women cricketers will be playing in the new format that BCCI introduced this season. While five top teams will qualify for the quarterfinals from Elite Group A and B combined, two will make it from Elite Group C and one from Plate Group, which consists of Manipur, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Pondicherry and Uttarakhand – all debutants, and Bihar, who are returning to the BCCI fold after 2003-04.

The introduction of nine teams is a part of the implementation of the Lodha Committee recommendations and there are bound to be a lot of lopsided matches, but the board has tried its best in preparing them. Sikkim, for example, are coached by Purnima Rau, the former India captain and coach, and have Ananya Upendran, the senior Hyderabad pacer, Archana Das, who will lead them, and Archana Das and Priyanka Acharya as professionals. Karuna Jain will lead Nagaland and Anagha Deshpande will be in charge of Pondicherry. The senior duo of Latika Kumari and Gouher Sultana will also turn up for Pondicherry.

Railways are the defending champions, but they were pushed last season and for only the second time did not win a BCCI event when they failed to make it to the Super League stages of the inter-state T20 competition. As usual, Mithali, who has had a few difficult days, will be at the helm.

In her email to Rahul Johri and Syed Saba Karim, BCCI’s CEO and GM, she alleged Ramesh Powar, India’s coach, of ill-treatment during the World T20 and also said Diana Edulji, one of the two-member Committee of Administrators, is biased against her. Powar was equally scratching in the assessment of the senior-most player in his report to BCCI. Both the emails were leaked, and that led Mithali to tweet that she was “deeply saddened & hurt by the aspersions cast” on her and called it the “darkest day of my life.”

There cannot be a better way to put all the negativity away by leading Railways to glory on the field once again. As much as it is about Mithali, it will also be a chance for Veda, who missed the last domestic season because of her Women’s Big Bash League commitment, and Ekta Bisht to regain the faith of the selectors.

While Veda was ordinary in World T20, Bisht was a reserve in all the five games. With so many youngsters led by Rodrigues starting to make noise, Veda needs a stellar show to be on that flight to New Zealand in late January. Similarly, Bisht, India’s lead spinner for long, has slipped down in the rankings with the emergence of Radha Yadav, and has to produce a special show to remain relevant. The trio apart, Railways have a strong core in Punam Raut, Poonam Yadav, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Mona Meshram and Arundhati Reddy. They have also been boosted by the presence of Kavita Patil and Shewta Jadhav, both of who have moved from Maharashtra, and the indomitable Rumeli Dhar, who has moved from Delhi.

Punjab and Maharashtra will miss the services of Harmanpreet and Mandhana respectively, both of who will be in Australia for WBBL. Even without Mandhana, Maharashtra look steady with Anuja Patil, Devika Vaidya, Tejal Hasabnis and Mukta Magre in their ranks. They will be keen to put it across Railways, with whom they have shared a comparatively close rivalry over the last few seasons.

Bengal will benefit from the presence of a fresh Goswami. Retired from T20s, she did not travel to the Windies and recently tweeted a happy team picture after clearing the Yo-Yo test. She will be dependent on Deepti Sharma, Shubhlakshmi Sharma, Tanushree Sarkar and the rest to make her aspiration to take Bengal to a title come true.

Among other players, the season is really crucial for Shikha Pandey. Having unfulfilled her potential as a bowling allrounder for long, she was dropped from the World T20 squad as the selectors backed the young pace bowling trio of Reddy, Mansi Joshi and Pooja Vastrakar. Pandey’s skills as a pacer could be handy in helpful conditions in New Zealand, but before that she has to regain the faith of Hemlata Kala’s committee by doing well for Goa and getting a place in one of the three squads for the 50-over Challenger Trophy scheduled from January 4 to 8.

Delhi will be one of the teams to look out for. Last season they impressed in the 50-over competition and then won the T20 title. Led by the veteran Reema Malhotra, they have a good balance of youth and experience.

After the Challenger Trophy, the next assignment for the senior teams is the T20 competition from February 20.  It’s a long a gap and uncapped youngsters like Priya Punia, Harleen Deol, Tanuja Kanwer, Sushree Pradhan and Reemalaxmi Ekka among others would not want to wait for that long to shed their status as stage designers.

Elite Group A (Mulapadu, Guntur): Railways, Maharashtra, Andhra, Punjab, Goa, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Saurashtra, Vidarbha.

Elite Group B (Bangalore, Alur): Karnataka, Bengal, Delhi, Baroda, Mumbai, Kerala, Gujarat, Tripura, Tamil Nadu

Elite Group C (Cuttack): Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Hyderabad, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan.

Plate Group (Bhubaneswar, Cuttack): Manipur, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Pondicherry, Uttarakhand, Bihar.

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