It's time for a change at the helm of affairs for the Indian national women's cricket team.
The women's ODI world cup is scheduled to be held in New Zealand early next year and the search for a head coach to lead the national team is now underway.
The Madan Lal-led Cricket Advisory Committee is due to pick the head coach from a field comprising of five women and three men.
Purnima Rau was the last woman to coach the national cricket team and since 2017, the position has been held by men, with WV Raman being the incumbent.
Jaya Sharma, the former India opening batsman, has thrown her hat in the ring as well.
With 77 ODIs and a career spanning 25-years, her cricketing resume is robust.
Speaking to The Bridge, Sharma shared her vision for the team, while highlighting the importance of mental toughness, personnel management, and building a pyramid with emphasis on grassroots development.
What has been your learning from a career spanning over decades?
More than anything the awareness of one's own game and the belief system is crucial. The mind plays a vital role if you want to perform at the highest level. After I retired, I started researching the components of mind conditioning and the factors that affect performance in competitive sports. In competitive sports, everything boils down to performance. Either you are practicing or playing, day in and day out, you need to outperform your previous version. And for that to happen, you need to know what affects performance. And everything is deep down inside of you and the key takeaway for me was to understand how the mind works and how it affects performance.
The Indian women's team has lost multiple world cup finals – 2005, 2017, and 2018. Were these finals lost in the mind?
Yes, of course. I was a part of the Indian team in 2005, the first team to make it to the world cup final in South Africa. I have experienced it myself. At the outset, we never thought we will make it to the final but when we got there, we didn't have a clue how to play that final. Under pressure in the final against Australia, we played the worst cricket and lost, despite beating the defending world champions New Zealand in the semi-finals.
That awareness of your own game, the team environment, your strengths comes from the faculties of the mind. And with every final, history is repeating itself.
You have been on overseas tours with the Indian team. How different is the ecosystem in Indian comparatively?
I saw a huge difference between the cricket played in India and in the other countries. The ecosystem in the top countries is very robust but in India, there a vacuum. When women play at the domestic level and then go on to play for India, there is a huge difference. And what happens is that a player coming into international cricket takes a much longer time to acclimatise to the situation and the challenges posed. For men's cricket, the ecosystem is already there with the IPL. That's how Prithvi Shaw and Ishan Kishan are able to express themselves after sharing the dressing room with the big guns in the IPL. That is something that is lacking in women's cricket.
What is your philosophy towards coaching?
I give more importance to mentorship rather than coaching. Mentoring people provides a holistic approach. Coaching is a very limited term. When we talk about coaching, it always takes people in the direction of technicalities. But competitive sports goes beyond technicalities – it's about skill and its about executing those skills. I give more importance to what drives an individual, what is the motivating factor behind them, what drives them and what is their process.
Three years prior to my retirement, I played as a professional for the Rajasthan women's team. I was their captain, coach and mentor in parallel. I once met a 13-year old girl that was coming for trials every year but always failed to make the team. I happened to spot that girl and worked with her for 6-months. Within a year thereafter, that girl made it to the U-19 and senior teams of Rajasthan and is currently the most consistent performer in the side.
What plagues a player's development – technical skills or the mental approach?
Not just in women's cricket but sports in general, the mental aspect is overlooked across the sports scenario in the country. I have worked as a mind conditioning coach with the boys as well at the U-19 and Ranji Trophy levels. All of them practice equally but place curbs in their mind. I once asked a boy preparing for the U-19 trials what he wants to achieve? He told me he will be happy if he played just one game for the state despite his training being on par with the best. Someone like Virat Kohli does not have a mental block.
What are the bright spots in the women's cricketing ecosystem in the country?
I have played in an era when there were limited resources. There was no infrastructure and no monetary involvement (at the time). With the BCCI stepping in, now there is a huge change in the thinking process and the resources available for the players. I think that is the most promising thing for women's cricket in India. The women cricketers are getting rewards, recognition, facilities, and BCCI is thinking about creating India U-19 and 'A' teams. When I was playing, creating a talent pool was lacking and no work was being done in the grassroots and no pyramid was being built. Right now, still there is a lack, but work has started in that direction. And BCCI and National Cricket Academy (NCA) are working in that direction and also looking to create women coaches. We just attended a Level-II course at the NCA for the women international players. So the opportunities are there right now. Even an U-19 player who plays regularly for the team earns money, so I think this is the best time for anybody to come into women's cricket right now. Parents were reluctant before as there was no profession in this (women's cricket) but now they see that there is a profession.
You have an Executive MBA in Sports Management from IIM-Rohtak. What was the thought process behind your enrolling in this program?
I am a person who likes to learn. I was good in studies and I wanted to do something that could contribute to a higher purpose. This was the first such course that was introduced by a top business school in India. The sports industry is booming across the globe but the problem in India is that we lack professionals in the sporting ecosystem - in the government federations or Olympic organisations. As a former player, I understand the game and the perspectives of a current player but I also wanted to understand the sports business. During my course enrolment interview, I told the faculty that with my ability to learn, I can contribute in a far greater sense and can be an asset to the sporting industry in my country if I can understand all these principles and frameworks.
What was your takeaway from the MBA program?
I had the opportunity to interact with foreign faculty and learnt how sports worked. We studied sports psychology and data analytics.
I understood what it takes to manage and run an organisation and build an ecosystem. These days, sport is a commodity and a business, and the player is the most important stakeholder. As a player, I did not understand why there was a pay-parity in Indian cricket. Now I realise the concept of return on investment. These management principles have taught me and widened my vision to understand how all the stakeholders can be managed, how the liaisoning can be done. Also, I studied sports psychology and data analytics.
When applying for the coach's job, I thought that right now with my credentials and expertise in mind conditioning, my ability to manage a dynamic environment will also come in handy. I am also confident now about creating an ecosystem where we get a feeder system to curate our talent pool for the national team.
What is the 'USP' that your candidature carries for the position of head coach for the Indian women's cricket team?
For me, sports coaching at the highest level is about man-management. I have learnt these principles from the best in the business and that will be my 'USP'. That said, may the best candidate win.
With the IPL now underway, talks have resurfaced about the women's IPL. Do we have a large enough Indian player pool to conduct a full-fledged women's IPL?
We do have a talent pool but we will not be able to create more than 3 to 4 teams. A 'ready' talent pool should mean that they are ready to play at a professional level. There is no cricket at the school level. Only a few states are working at the grassroots level. The work to produce this level of players is now in progress.