T20 WC 2023: 18 years in making, India's past paves way for present in South Africa

Highlighting how things have improved on and off the field, Mithali recalls the first World Cup in South Africa.
Members of the Indian Women's cricket team from the 2005 World Cup in South Africa. (File Photo | AFP)
Members of the Indian Women's cricket team from the 2005 World Cup in South Africa. (File Photo | AFP)

CHENNAI: 2023 is the year of women’s sports. Some of the marquee events across disciplines will take place, are taking place or has already taken place; two cricket World Cups, a FIFA World Cup and a Netball World Cup to name a few. 

In the 52 days since the year began, a lot has already happened in the spectrum of women’s sports, especially cricket. India won their first-ever ICC title with the U19 WC, the Women’s Premier League broke ground in terms of marketability, Smriti Mandhana became the most expensive women’s cricketer, and India have reached yet another semifinal of a T20 World Cup. While superstars of Indian cricket are getting ready to take on Australia in Cape Town on Thursday, things were drastically different the last time the Women in Blue toured South Africa for a World Cup.

The year was 2005 and women’s cricket in India, at that point, was run by the Women’s Cricket Association of India and not the BCCI. The Indian team, led by Mithali Raj, had arrived early in South Africa for a camp to get acclimated to the conditions. But getting there was a journey itself. The road to the 2005 Women’s ODI World Cup began in 2003 when former captain Shubangi Kulkarni became the Secretary of the WCAI. 

When she took over the job, Kulkarni decided to focus on two Fs — fitness and fielding. For her, the vision was to get the best out of the Indian team so that they could bring in more spectators and sponsors for the women’s game. While she had brought on Sudha Shah as a coach and the physio (Dr Hamsraj) and trainers, Kulkarni had other things to worry about; WCAI were struggling apropos finances. That is when she approached an IT giant. With their help, the team and players were able to train at their campus, access gyms and swimming pools and other facilities. 

Mithali remembers the first fitness camp they had at the Sri Ramachandra Institute of Higher Education and Research in Chennai. “It was the first time I think we were introduced to planks. In those two minutes, the entire life was coming in front of your eyes,” laughs Mithali, adding, “We felt we were fit, but that really opened our mind, that we were not even at the basic fitness required to be an international athlete.”

The objectives of the camps were simple to assess players before and after with a training program to follow. But that was not all of it. The IT company did workshops with the players about personality development, body language, coming together as a team, and so on. They were given formal and informal uniforms which, at some level, gave them a sense of belonging as a group.

On the field, Kulkarni was keen on organising matches with every team India might face in the World Cup. They played against New Zealand, Australia, England, Sri Lanka, and West Indies. There, too, financial struggles became a constant issue. Kulkarni recalls one of the matches against New Zealand at the Brabourne Stadium when everyone’s attention turned towards the entrance. Mandira Bedi was standing there.

Mithali Raj (L) with Mandira Bedi in 2005. (File photo | AFP)
Mithali Raj (L) with Mandira Bedi in 2005. (File photo | AFP)

“We invited her and got chatting. We spoke about the paucity of funds and she told us to ask for help without reservations. When we were struggling to put together the West Indies series, I was thinking if I should open my safety deposit or sell off my flat. Then, I got in touch with her, and in two days, she connected us with a jewellery company and we worked out our sponsorship. After the series, we got to know that Mandira had done an ad for them and asked them to sponsor us. She went out of her way to be with the team and give whatever publicity with fans and coverage,” says Kulkarni. 

Were the players privy to all the issues WCAI was facing? Mithali says that they might not have known every detail, but had an idea as to what was happening.

“As players, we understood that there were difficulties and that also motivated us. If someone is going all out to put everything together to give us the preparation before the World Cup, as players, it is even bigger for us to get down, give our best, and play the best standard of cricket,” she says.

Even after they reached South Africa, things were not as it is now. There seemed to be a clear difference in the facilities between the top three teams New Zealand, the defending champs, Australia and England and the rest. The Indian team was put up on the second floor of a dormitory with no lift or fan and there wasn’t any Indian food. Team manager Trupti Bhattacharya and Kulkarni had to take it up with the ICC after which one fan was provided per double-sharing room.

For Bhattacharya, the sole mission was to ensure the comfort and mental space of the players so that they could play their best cricket. If it meant she had to fight for Indian cuisine or even cook some potato, she did not mind it. 

“As long as they are happy, they do what they can on the field. I do the same off it. I don’t remember the gentleman’s name. He would keep on saying ‘you are too demanding’ but the girls need to eat. They can’t survive on bread. There were some very nice people who invited us to their place and gave us food but we couldn’t do that every day. Eventually, he decided to hire an Indian chef and get some spices. Every time he used to say ‘you win the next one and you get this, you win the next one and you get this’. I said ‘I am going to win it all’. It started with a bitter dialogue but ended up becoming the best of friends,” recalls Bhattacharya. 

Mithali, however, feels that the situation off the field only brought the players closer. “We always found something to laugh about. It got the team together. When things are trying, that’s when I think players come together from different backgrounds. What helps a bunch of people to be together is the challenges they face together. And in that tournament, I think that is what brought the entire team together to perform the way we did,” said Mithali.

As India started winning, things started changing, the dorms became better and by the time they reached the finals, they were treated like a top team. In the final, India were completely outplayed by Australia as they suffered a 98-run defeat. Overwhelmed is a common sentiment among people who were there.

“When we speak in jest, it comes from your heart and that’s what is running in your mind. And that’s what all of us would talk about, bas ek final Khelna hai (just have to play in one final) because until then, India have not played in the final. Nobody had the experience of what it is to be in the finals. So, when we reached the finals, we didn’t know what to do,” said Mithali.

“I don’t think we probably had much time from the semis to the finals to actually allow that feeling to sink in and then get ready. We made the semifinals happen, but we expected things would just happen in the final,” she added.

The Indian women's cricket team during a facilitation ceremony held in Mumbai in 2005. (File Photo | AFP)
The Indian women's cricket team during a facilitation ceremony held in Mumbai in 2005. (File Photo | AFP)

Although India did not win the World Cup, the impact of reaching the final was massive. They had a facilitation ceremony when they returned home and the results helped WCAI in persuading the BCCI to merge. For Kulkarni, it was important because the ICC was insisting on it. What more, women cricketers would benefit a lot from their injury management at the NCA.

“When we came back, Sharad Pawar, who was the BCCI president, and we started talking. We got an extension to function under BCCI. Although BCCI had not merged with WCAI, it gave the approval to participate as the Indian team. And that is how the merging process began,” she said. 

Eighteen years on, Kulkarni is now a part of the BCCI Apex Council, Mithali is commentating in the ongoing T20 World Cup and Bhattacharya will be taking on the same job as a manager with the Mumbai Indians team in WPL.

The Indian team has access to the top facilities in the world and seldom has to struggle on tours. The current crop of cricketers knows it too. Every time something groundbreaking happens, you can see them acknowledge the fact that it is because of the past generations they and women’s cricket are where they are.

India have reached three major tournament finals since 2005 but have fallen short in all of them. On Thursday, they have a chance to make it to another World Cup final. And if they do, they will know what needs to be done to win it this time.

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