Women's Tests - A novelty that begs for context
She has had a taste of Test captaincy only 15 years into her international career, yet helming India to dual history-making victories in eight days Harmanpreet Kaur passed on the winners trophy to the game's respective debutant(s) ahead of the team photo. The rarity of home Test wins - or Tests at large in women's circuit - isn't lost on her.
Shubha Satheesh was the recipient last Saturday at the DY Patil Stadium, showing off the fractured finger to the world for the first time since being ruled out of the remainder of her debut Test as she hoisted it alongside Jemimah Rodrigues and Renuka Thakur. On Sunday, Richa Ghosh embraced an identical piece of silverware in Mumbai, posing in the centre.
Among those behind the lens was Australia captain Alyssa Healy with some time to kill - she's so used to being on the other side - and an intention to lend a helping hand as some of the accredited photographers got pushed out by security. The sense of occasion wasn't lost on her either, despite a result she didn't hope to begin her reign with.
Barely ten feet behind was the Garware Pavilion, the home of 1000-odd spectators, the Bucket Hat Cult among them that bantered, chanted and thoroughly entertained, probably even at the cost of some sore throats and aching palms among the group. Amidst largely India-centric slogans was acknowledgement of the fight Australians put up, a couple of bowling change-up suggestions and a shoutout to 'legend' Megan Schutt.
From "You took it to Day 4, You took it to Day 4. Unlike the English, You took it to Day 4" to the chorus of "Well Done, Aussies" as India wrapped up the formalities inside an hour after Lunch. A constant, though, was "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun, it is to watch India win all day."
As India Women's two-Test season drew to a memorable close at the Wankhede on Sunday, nobody knew when the next opportunity in whites would arrive for Harmanpreet & Co.
And, everybody ached for more. Healy included.
"Imagine playing two more of these?," said the Australian captain. "I think that would be an unbelievable experience for our group and probably a true test of both sides' abilities.
"In a one-off Test match [with] India playing in their home conditions, you'd expect them to be heavy favourites and the way that I think we tried to adapt and continued to learn throughout the four days was really impressive. We'd love to see more and more, and it would create a real contest in three games."
Tests are every bit a novelty on the women's circuit. Besides these two, England and South Africa are the only other active Test-playing nations currently with the latter due for only their second in 9+ years in the first quarter of 2024 when they tour Australia. As such, there's no Test mace to play for, no ICC rankings even in the format as a bit of an incentive, and the idea of a Test Championship seems unwise at a time when opportunity in whites has remained elusive to many of the current icons.
India and South Africa's re-introduction to red-ball cricket happened only since 2021, more than seven years after they last played each other in Mysore in 2014. England and Australia kept at it, albeit playing a one-off game every Ashes. What did lend context to the stray contest, however, were four points attached to the game as part of a multi-format points-based series. India leaned into the same on resumption and Australia, who won the last rubber in 2021, brought along the piece of silverware only to be later clarified this Test carries no weightage in terms of series points, thus robbing the game of the little context existed.
"I sit here disappointed that we couldn't win the Test match but at the end of the day when we weren't playing for overall series points for a trophy, it does make it a little bit of a novelty in a sense," Healy said. "And that's hard for me to sit here and say, because I want to play more Test cricket, so the fact that it sort of feels meaningless in a sense is really disappointing to me."
Healy can take solace from the fact that Australia, unlike victors India, have another red-ball fixture in the near calendar. Meaning, there's something to look forward to and a scope for implementing lessons from the loss against India. It does, however, mean Australia's third Test in a span of nine months - a format they play very little of - in three very different conditions.
"We are going to play three Tests over the space of 8-9 months in three very very different conditions - that is probably a big ask for a side to come out and play the way we want to. You think about the way that you want to play but sometimes it doesn't come to fruition because of the conditions that we are not used to."
Between the unprecedented five-day Ashes Test in Nottingham earlier this year to push for a result and India's dominant run in the home winter, the popularity and hunger for more red-ball games has grown manifold within the ecosystem. Healy however took the pragmatic view, not in the least because of a fresh defeat.
"Look, I can happily sit here and say, 'yes sir, I'd love to play more Test cricket'. It's the reality of what that looks like and how we would make that happen knowing that we are white ball dominant. We have World Cups seemingly every year in the white ball formats and how would that all fit in and take place when there's only three-four teams playing," she said.
"The nature of the female game at the moment is very white-ball dominant and trying to fit it all into the calendar, the white-ball games at the moment seems to take precedence."