Reema Malhotra vividly remembers her shot that took India to victory against England in the second and final Women’s Test in Taunton in 2006. Shubhangi Kulkarni clearly recalls the leg-break that clean-bowled a key West Indian batter in the Indian women’s team’s first-ever Test victory in 1976 in Patna.
Those memories flashed through their minds as Reema and Shubhangi watched live on television, India’s latest Women’s Test in Bristol. Cricket fans around the world were following that riveting Test. They are not going to forget it in a hurry. It ended in a draw, with not even three innings completed. But it produced great drama on the final day. The kind of drama that makes Test cricket the irresistible theatre it is.
The final day had dawned with India following on at 83 for one, needing another 82 to make the host bat again. After being fairly well-placed at 171 for three at lunch, the visitor slumped to 240 for eight. A collapse like the one in the first innings — from 167 for no loss to 231 all out — looked very much on the cards. With plenty of overs remaining, England would have enough time to knock off the required runs.
But two debutants, all-rounder Sneh Rana and wicket-keeper Taniya Bhatia, defied the formidable England attack, adding 104 runs for the unbroken ninth wicket. The magnificent fightback won the Indian women’s team hearts and quite possibly new followers, too.
“I am sure many more people will start to watch women’s cricket after the Bristol Test,” says Shubhangi, the former India captain. “When I played and took 23 wickets against the West Indies in India’s first ever international series, in 1976, perhaps not even the people in my hometown of Pune were aware of what I did, as there was no media coverage.”
It was a similar story when India scored a historic series victory in England some 30 years later. “The match wasn’t televised live and there weren’t that many reports in newspapers either,” says Reema, who is justifiably proud of taking India home with her boundary through mid-wicket off Isa Guha. “Things have changed massively for the better in women’s cricket, with live coverage and the great interest shown by the entire media.”
Reema, who is now a television commentator, believes the Bristol Test has proved that female cricketers deserved more Tests. Before Bristol, India had played just three Tests in the last 15 years, and won all of them.
It is not just at the international level that there is a shortage of red-ball cricket for the Indian women. The last multi-day tournament in the country was played in 2018 in Thiruvananthapuram — the senior women’s inter-zonal championship. Reema was North Zone’s captain. Her go-to bowler was Sneh.
“Sneh bowled a lot of overs in that tournament,” says Reema. “She wanted to be in the thick of action.”
That trait was evident in Bristol, too. Sneh took four wickets in the England innings before playing the match-saving innings of 80 not out.
She was coming back to international cricket after five years. She missed her father, though, on her proudest moment. He had passed away two months back. “He had wanted me to play for India again,” she told reporters in a virtual conference.
Shafali Verma stood out, with scores of 96 and 63. Known for her aggressive batting, the 17-year-old adapted her game beautifully to Test cricket in Bristol. Her defence was solid and she more often than not picked the right ball to hit. – Getty Images
Sneh was one of the five debutants India fielded. Among them, 17-year-old Shafali Verma stood out, with scores of 96 and 63. She proved a revelation because she had been known for her aggressive batting right through her short career and is the World No. 1 batter in women’s T20I. The Indian team management hadn’t even played her in ODIs.
In Bristol, she adapted her game beautifully to Test cricket. Her defence was solid and she more often than not picked the right ball to hit.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see her playing proper Test innings,” says Shubhangi. “For someone who may never have played a competitive match in red-ball cricket, what she has done is amazing.”
All-rounder Deepti Sharma, who took three wickets in the England innings and made a crucial half-century after being promoted to No. 3 in India’s second innings, and Taniya, who made 43 not out, also showed that this generation of Indian female cricketers could adapt themselves regardless of situations or formats. They work hard on their game. Shafali hones her skills by facing the likes of India seamer Mohit Sharma.
She has shown she could excel in Test cricket — provided Tests matches are played regularly in the women’s game. The women’s Ashes is the only Test series that is organised on a regular basis. But even the English and Australian women aren’t playing Tests as often as they used to.
Women cricketers are desperately keen to play Tests. “Any woman cricketer will tell you that she wants to play Tests,” says Indian captain Mithali Raj. “I hope this is a beginning — a Test against England in a full bilateral series and the pink-ball Test later in the year in Australia.”
Shubhangi thinks the solution lies in ensuring that every bilateral series has at least one Test. “That is the way forward,” she says. “If the BCCI requests a visiting team to play a Test, I think they will oblige. Even New Zealand, whose last Test was in 2004.”The Test ended in a draw, with not even three innings completed. But it produced great drama on the final day. The kind of drama that makes Test cricket the irresistible theatre it is.