Sport, interrupted: World Cup final could have sparked women's cricket revival. Then Covid-19 happened

Smriti Mandhana (batting) had been approached to take part in the Women's Hundred in England, but will have to wait till 2021 now. Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN looks across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt Bengal's medium-pace bowler Pampa Sarkar a double whammy: the breadwinner in her family, her income from selling betel leaf at Kalirhat Bazaar, approximately 110 km north of Kolkata, has shrunk since the lockdown began on March 24. Ten days earlier, Sarkar and her Bengal Senior Women's teammates had been forced to return mid-tour from Vadodara when the BCCI stopped the domestic season until further notice.

For Sarkar, it has set off an acute cash crunch. She gets a daily allowance of Rs 1,200 during tournaments and a match fee of Rs 6,250 (excluding 10% TDS) for 50-over games, which doubles if she's in the starting XI. The tournament had reached the knockout stage but Bengal would conceivably have played a couple of matches more, over a week in Vadodara - adding up to a sizeable sum lost for her.

Unlike their male counterparts, few women cricketers in India are offered corporate employment; outside of match earnings from the domestic season, they either rely on the BCCI's central contracts - 22 of them, earning between Rs 10-50 lakh per year - or are employed by the Railways. The absence of an IPL-style women's league gives them little room to supplement their income. There are 168 women's domestic matches, spanning seven tournaments and three age groups -- senior, U-23, and U-19 -- now in limbo. It leaves women's cricket in India, mostly comprising uncapped and financially underprivileged players, with little-to-no earnings for months should the pandemic wipe out the unfinished 2019-20 domestic season.

"My Bengal coaches, team-mates, including Jhulan [Goswami] di, Laxmi Ratan Shukla (the former India and Bengal all-rounder who's currently a minister in the state government), and my local club have been helping me," Sarkar, 25, tells ESPN over the phone. "I couldn't earn a penny in the first month of the lockdown because there was no supply of paan [betel leaf]. Then Amphan [a supercyclone that ravaged eastern India a fortnight ago] made matters worse. With no practice for over two months, I'm worried about my game; the domestic matches are all we [uncapped players] have - that's the only pathway for female cricketers to realise our India dreams."

The post-World Cup lull

In Sangli, Maharashtra, India T20 vice-captain Smriti Mandhana had been looking forward to a 45-day break from the game after five months of non-stop cricket. That's now become an extended and involuntary three months and counting, and robbing her of precious opportunities.

"After the T20 World Cup [which ended on March 8], we didn't have any assignments lined up until mid-May, which is when the Women's T20 Challenge was due to be held [on the sidelines of the men's IPL]. We were then supposed to tour England in June-July for four ODIs and two T20s," Mandhana says. Those tournaments are now in limbo. The Women's Hundred, the new English tournament due to debut this year, has been deferred to 2021; Mandhana had been approached by a few teams but will have to wait another year for that opportunity.

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Sport, interrupted: How the coronavirus lockdown is affecting the Indian sport ecosystem

Mandhana is one of three women cricketers on the Grade A BCCI contracts; with Rs 50 lakh from it for the current financial year she's comfortably off but for her and many others there's the deep regret of missed opportunities. Especially over the deferment of the Women's T20 Challenge, which could have built on the success and fame that the players earned by reaching the World Cup final. That match - India women's first T20 World Cup final - before a 86,714-strong crowd at the MCG sparked huge interest in the sport in India and could have been built on had the Challenge been held on schedule.

"Our campaign in Australia created quite a bit of excitement, and the players and fans and audiences had all been looking forward to the Women's T20 Challenge," says Mandhana. "Going by the full-house turnout at last year's Women's T20 Challenge [in Jaipur], this year's expanded four-team tournament, too, would have been amazing."

Keeping scores, losing count

It's not just the players, of course; it's the entire ecosystem of women's cricket in India that could be struggling for survival.

For Ranjita Rane, a former Mumbai player who began scoring matches with the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) five years ago, the pandemic has highlighted the myopic planning around the women's game. "Quite a few former state-level players have yet to figure out their pension plans. Some may qualify for a pension but are unaware; some lack the practical knowledge to deal with such matters themselves," says Rane, 42. "This is a particularly difficult time for the latter. And, many of us who returned to the sport in various capacities [after our playing careers] through scoring and officiating, have a lot at stake if cricket doesn't return soon."

One of Rane's last assignments was a five-match intra-state women's practice tournament at the Ghatkopar Jolly Gymkhana club, in February. Typically, a domestic season spanning eight or nine months allows her to make upwards of Rs 10,000 a month. She earns Rs. 1000 per day per MCA game, including Mumbai women's practice matches. Private scoring at men's clubs and invitational matches bring in supplemental income. Cricket is now a long way on the horizon for Mumbai, the country's top Covid-19 hotspot. That's sent Rane's income plans for the season in disarray.

"Whether you score men's or women's games or both, the MCA-held competitions like the Mumbai Premier League, Kanga League, [school tournaments such as] the Haris Shield, and women's warm-ups are all vital income opportunities for us," says Rane, who has qualified for Category A monetary help worth Rs 1 lakh from the Indian Cricketers' Association (ICA). "Many of these competitions begin around May-June. But given the severity of the outbreak in this part of the country, we may not have any action at the maidaans anytime soon."

Rane took up scoring five years ago, after losing her private-sector job when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. "My savings are on the brink of drying up and I need to account for my chemotherapy expenses as well. Had it not been for my friends from the former Mumbai women players' community who helped with my application to the ICA, things would have been more difficult for me."

Retaining talent and investment

And then there's the other aspect of the gender factor: The realization that women will simply find it more difficult to return to what is essentially a part-time occupation. Andhra Women coach head coach, Srinivas Reddy, who also oversees part of the Andhra Pradesh Cricket Women's Academy in Guntur, is under no illusion that it will be a while before most uncapped women players consider returning to the game.

"Our Academy girls, for example, come from all of Andhra Pradesh's 13 districts, most of them from the backward areas in Vijaywada, Kannur, and Narasaraopeta," explains Reddy. "We have to understand that poverty and a disease of this scale can be a dangerous combination. In a country like India, women's cricket will require more planning, time, and investment to overcome the crisis."

In the wake of pay cuts across sport, the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations, according to a recent Reuters report, urged the ICC and the boards "to continue to invest in sustainable foundations for the women's game around the world." Arun Dhumal, the BCCI treasurer, meanwhile, told the news agency, "There's no question of reducing investment [in women's cricket]. And cutting player salaries is the last thing we'd want to do."

Financial immunity for the pool of 22 centrally contracted women's players could mean that save for their potential earnings from The Hundred (ranging anywhere between £8,000 to £15,000 this season) and the WBBL (typically A$ 25,000 to 40,000 per season), a top-drawer India international stands to lose little. By contrast, those lower down the food chain have little to cling on to.

"I've made peace with my situation," insists Sarkar. "Sure, the poor have little choice compared to the rich, but at a fundamental level, the virus has rendered us all powerless; everyone's hands are tied."