Mithali Raj believes India Women's return to Test cricket after a gap of nearly seven years could pave the way for multi-format, points-based bilateral series becoming a regular feature on the women's cricket calendar. This, she said, could even begin the pathway towards a multi-team global tournament for women's teams fashioned after the men's World Test Championship.
"I feel this Test match and even the pink-ball Test, which is in Australia in the coming months, it's just the beginning of having a three-format bilateral series," Raj, India's Test and ODI captain, said on the eve of the one-off Test against England in Bristol. "It probably opens up the channel to have another format added in a bilateral series and that will clearly help the overall standard of women's cricket.
"Also, the players - I mean, you ask any modern-day cricketer, they still want to play the longer format because they eventually know that the format tests the skill of a player."
The last time India played two or more Tests in a year was in 2014, which was also the last time they appeared in the format. The Bristol Test, which marks their return to red-ball cricket after a break of 2401 days, carries four points for a win under the multi-format system for the tour, which also includes three ODIs and three T20Is.
A draw will fetch the teams two points apiece and one point will be awarded for a no-result. Wins in the white-ball games will be worth two points each. The Ashes, which has been the only occasion that has involved Test matches in women's cricket since 2014, follows the same grading system.
"It's good to have the Test match in a series," Raj said. 'We [already] had the one-dayers and the T20Is. Maybe in the coming years it might also lead to a World Test Championship [for women]. You never know. This is just the beginning. I hope we continue to have bilateral series where all three formats are there."
While a Women's WTC may seem a distant prospect at the moment, there is a chance that more teams might play Test cricket regularly over the coming years, with the ICC awarding Test status to all Full Member women's teams in April.
The announcement of both the Test against England and the pink-ball game against Australia, scheduled for September-October, was an unexpected development in Indian women's cricket. On the international circuit, the ODI World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, to be played in the T20 format, both scheduled for next year, and the 2023 T20 World Cup remain the focal points of India's long-term preparations. In domestic cricket, no red-ball tournaments for women's cricketers have been held in India since the 2017-2018 season.
Head coach Ramesh Powar and Test vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur identified the dearth of adequate preparedness as a challenge going into the Test in Bristol. Raj echoed her colleagues, but said efforts had been made by senior players like herself and premier fast bowler Jhulan Goswami, as well as Powar, to help the inexperienced members of the 18-member Test and ODI squad to hit the ground running.
"There were a few sessions that we tried to have in the whites so that the girls don't get [intimidated] when they walk into the ground tomorrow because for most of them it's their first time getting into the ground in the whites," Raj said. "That is one thing [Powar] tried to get into the sessions. There were four-five sessions where we trained together as a team in the whites, so we get a feel of it in the nets sessions and it doesn't feel alien for the girls when they get onto the ground.
"He also got the seniors to speak to the other players who are less experienced about the format about the last time we played a Test match, so there was a lot of communication with Jhulan talking to the fast bowlers and I'm talking to the batters. So, I think when you have this communication going, it sort of gets the team get collectively prepared for the Test match."
India have won each of their last three Test matches - played over an eight-year span from August 2006 to November 2014 - which puts them level with Australia in terms of most consecutive wins in the format. Raj said the squad hadn't been thinking about the record, but hoped the players would put in a strong performance, particularly since the Test match will be broadcast live.
"In terms of marketing the sport, I think it is great to have a Test match live on television because clearly, a lot of people will follow, now with the pandemic [on] and there's partial restrictions everywhere [because of lockdowns], so a lot of people will be watching the game," she said. "As far as the players are concerned, it is equally important [to play well in this Test match]. Seven years back, the scenario was very different for women's cricket.
"Having said that, that team never really thought whether the match is [covered] live or not; it never really crosses a players mind as long as we get in there and we put forward our best performance. Whether it is covered live or not, that's [not] the players' lookout. We are there to get there and give our best standard, and if it's covered live, nothing like it because that's how the sport will grow being viable."