Indian Railways sustains women’s cricket but player monopoly hurts

I’ve spent the last week commentating on women’s domestic cricket, watching new talent emerge. I’ve seen depth: take for instance Karnataka’s uncapped top order which hasn’t given captain Veda Krishnamurthy many chances to bat. But amid the ingredients for the future, I’ve also seen a present pain we need to address: Let’s talk about the harm that Indian Railways is doing to Indian women’s cricket.

But not before we talk about the good they do.

Indian Railways, the institution, is a provider. As Sharda Ugra has said, sport in India isn’t about leisure, it’s about livelihood. Railways puts food on the tables of women’s players, ensures financial security through permanent jobs and pensions. A player I spoke to had accepted a Railway job even before she turned 18, to support her dependents: two parents and four siblings, three of those ‘unmarried sisters’. This is a familiar story.

On a personal level, the Railways kept me in the game after college. As a well educated student, higher education and the financial rewards it promised beckoned. Cricket earned me no income at the time. I might have stopped playing cricket after my Bachelors had I not secured a job with Western Railway, thus allowing my cricket to fund itself.

It is not an overstatement to say that Railways sustains the system. It is practically the only employer for women’s cricket, because they are one of only two non-state teams that play domestic cricket under BCCI. The other, Services, employs precious few women, and does not field women’s teams.

So, the Railways is the sole buyer in the market for the skills of female cricketers. This creates a monopoly. This creates imbalance.

The Indian Railways women’s cricket team has now won 22 out of 26 senior domestic competitions since 2006. Monopolies are good for the monopolists, but usually bad for the market. Talented state cricketers are offered jobs by one of the eight railway zones, and so the Indian Railways squad comprises the best of each state. Each state team is thus weakened, leading to more lopsided games. The margins of victory for Railways this year: 246 runs, 149 runs, and four wins by eight wickets or better. On Saturday, they rolled Karnataka over for 74 in the final, registering an eight-wicket win for a 13th One-Day title. The talent exists, but the way it is distributed skews the system.

Besides the systemic imbalances, there are also individual losses. Railways picks more talent in its squads than can fit in its XI. Take the case of wicketkeeper Indrani Roy. Last season, Roy top scored with 456 runs, nearly 100 runs more than the next player. She inspired her team, Jharkhand, to their first final (they lost to Railways). An Eastern Railway employee, she was drafted into the Railways squad this season. But with Railways backing their incumbent wicketkeeper, Roy has played only two games. And Jharkhand did not qualify for the knockouts.

Let’s also talk about 27-year old Meghana Singh, who dazzled all with her swing in Australia. Many people asked me, ‘Where has she been all these years?’ Slow cooked in the Railways system, I answered. We have watched Meghana bowl out-swing at pace since she was a teenager. But in 2015-16 BCCI added the Under-23 group where Railways fielded a team. Meghana, a fresh Northern Railways employee, was picked in the Under-23s for Railways, but couldn’t break into the talented senior squad and so missed a season of senior cricket. Had she played for her state, she would have played the U-23 and senior season. She might have played for India sooner.

One can’t expect the Railways to stop doing what it does. Its prerogative is to win domestic titles and it is doing a fine job of it. But the monopoly needs to be challenged. The BCCI central contracts, in place now for six years, have done this. Smriti Mandhana won’t join Railways, despite many offers on the table. Harmanpreet Kaur resigned her Railways job. But there are only 19 central contracts. These will not provide a blanket to the grassroots.

The answer might lie in contracts for state cricketers. These have been discussed, mainly in the context of men’s cricket. But women’s cricket needs them more, needs them first, needs them faster. The recent increase in match fees for domestic cricket is welcome, but substantial contracts at the domestic level could prove system-changing. It would allow the states to retain their talent, thus incentivising talent creation as well, leading to a more competitive domestic competition.

The Indian Railways is the Big Tech of domestic women’s cricket. Apple and Google may make countless lives better, but without a challenger, they also do harm to the market they’re in.

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