The Great Indian Circus

© Women's CricZone

Circus

n. a travelling company of acrobats, clowns, and other entertainers which gives performances, typically in a large tent, in a series of different places.

n. a public sense of frenetic, noisy or confused activity.

 

‘Circus’ was the word used by a senior journalist to describe the drama surrounding the selection of India’s latest head coach, Ramesh Powar. The announcement was made on Thursday (May 13) evening, quite soon after the interviews of all eight shortlisted candidates were completed by the Cricket Advisory Committee.

Powar replaces former India batter WV Raman at the helm of the women’s team. Raman, who was appointed head coach in early 2019, incidentally took the position vacated by Powar after a public spat with India ODI skipper Mithali Raj.

To be fair, the process of appointment was something of a circus. It ticked all the boxes. It was frenetic – the announcement made the same evening the interviews were conducted, merely days before the women’s team is meant to assemble ahead of their tour to England. It was very confusing. What were the parameters considered? What did Raman do wrong? Do we really want to do this ten months out from a World Cup? Are we really not going to talk about the elephant in the room? And I’m sure if you looked hard enough you could find the acrobats, magicians and other entertainers as well. After all, Indian cricket is full of them – women’s cricket more so.

But jokes aside, nothing about this helter-skelter approach to something involving the Indian women’s cricket team is surprising. In fact, these days it feels all too predictable.

You don’t have to dive too deep into the memory bank to remember the mystery surrounding the India-South Africa series a few months ago. It was only after the Indian contingent reached Lucknow and began their quarantine period that the squad was officially announced. Among those in the know, teams were discussed in hushed whispers. How could they? Why did they? But no one had an answer. It seemed those entertainers had used the time to test their vanishing cabinets. By the time the official announcement was made, their disappearing act was complete.

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Trying to memorise the list of Indian coaches in the past decade is like trying to remember a play in a football game. There are a limited number of players, but far too many passes in a short space of time.

Sudha Shah (2008-10) ⇒ KVP Rao (2010) ⇒ Anju Jain (2011-13) ⇒ Tushar Arothe (2013) ⇒ Purnima Rau (2014) ⇒ Sudha Shah (2014) ⇒ Purnima Rau (2015-17) ⇒ Tushar Arothe (2017-18) ⇒ Ramesh Powar (2018) ⇒ WV Raman (2019-21) ⇒ Ramesh Powar

Since 2010, the title of head coach of the Indian women’s cricket team has changed hands 11 times;  five of those changes occurring in the last five years. And each time the title has switched hands, it has come with many changes, however slight, in team culture, player roles, playing style, plans and so much more. Each time, it requires players to re-adjust to a new environment.

Through his tenure, Raman appeared to have found a way that worked for most of the players. Under his tutelage India won nine of the 12 ODIs they played in 2019, including series wins in New Zealand and West Indies. While his T20I record wasn’t flattering (14 wins in 25 games), he looked to be building a young Indian team that was quickly gaining in confidence. One that reached the final of the tri-series in Australia and followed it up with a runner-up finish in the T20 World Cup 2020 as well. He allowed young Shafali Verma to play with absolute freedom – shielding her from the pressures that most young Indian batters have to deal with when coming through the ranks.

Under Raman, Shikha Pandey found a new gear as lead seamer of the T20I side, Ekta Bisht found her mojo, Taniya Bhatia’s ‘keeping went up a notch, Richa Ghosh slotted quite seamlessly into the side, and Smriti Mandhana continued to grow as a leader. Both squads seemed to have found a formula that worked for them. They were headed in the right direction. He had filled India with hope heading into the 2022 ODI World Cup. But like most things in Indian women’s cricket – it was too good to be true.

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Head coach WV Raman with Smriti Mandhana. © BCCI

WV Raman took over as head coach in early 2019. © BCCI

After nearly a year of no cricket, an under-strength squad selected for the home series against South Africa came together with little practice under their belt and was duly demolished by the visitors. They were a better prepared team with some game-time under their belts. India, on the other hand, were clearly undercooked, but showed flashes of their ability through the series. It was evident they needed more time in the field. Both coach and captain admitted to the same.

Despite the hullabaloo that followed India’s poor performance in March, to those following the team, the extension of Raman’s contract until the 2022 World Cup seemed a mere formality. With little time for the mega event, it was the logical choice. He knew the players, had earned their trust and had proven that he has what it takes to take them forward. The pieces of the puzzle were almost in place. The issues of some of the senior players could be sorted out.

It is for this reason that the timing of Powar’s appointment has left many questioning the logic behind it. For a team to adjust to a new approach so close to a World Cup at a time where training camps within the country seem like a distant dream, feels like asking the circus troupe to change its entire act days before opening night. All this, when the conductor and main act don’t see eye to eye!

Circus, indeed!

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Sport is a ruthless place. Players come and go – culled for poor performance or overlooked after an untimely injury. It’s the circle of an athlete’s life. No one plays forever, just like no one coaches forever. You may not like it, but you learn to live with it.

Much like India’s questionable selections earlier this year, we will learn to live with this poorly handled change of guard as well. And while the issue itself will be left to fester in a few days; one hopes that the questions thrown up are not. The entertainers within the Indian women’s cricket system must start being accountable. They can no longer vanish into their cabinets. We can humour this circus no longer.