In the early 1980s, Diana Eduljee, who was then the Indian women’s cricket team star bowler, would bowl at the Cricket Club of India nets in Mumbai. “Whatever you do, don’t get out to her,” one of my team-mates warned me. Sure enough, I stepped out to drive, was beaten in the flight and out- stumped. As I was leaving the nets, the team-mate snidely remarked , “You can’t even play a woman!” Former test cricketer, the late Ashok Mankad, who overheard the conversation quickly intervened, “Arrey, Diana is probably better than some of Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy spinners!”
Almost four decades later, no one will ever again try and put down an Indian woman cricketer again. The significance of what has transpired over the last few weeks at the World Cup in England, culminating in a oh-so-close final loss at Lords, is that women’s cricket in India will now be finally taken seriously. While lifting the Cup would have been a huge bonus, the journey to the finals must be seen as Indian women cricket’s Chak De moment, a real-life version of what our women hockey players achieved on screen, and a milestone that should end decades of rank prejudice in the country’s most popular sport..
For years, Indian women cricketers have suffered because cricket was seen as an exclusive male preserve. It isn’t just that the women’s cricket association wasn’t recognized by the BCCI till 2006 or that the players were paid a pittance. Truth is, the entire system was ranged against the idea of women having an “equal” right to play the game.
To participate in the Women’s World Cup in in New Zealand in 1982, the team members had to cough up Rs 10,000 from their own pocket! While playing in the national championships, they were denied the right to play in the best grounds and often stayed in tin sheds and slept on the floor.
That is slowly but surely changing now with the Indian team members being given central retainer contracts, apart from reasonable daily allowances. The live coverage of the World Cup in England, especially Sunday’s nail-biting final, has suddenly exposed an entire generation of Indian women players to a wide audience.
The dimunitive opening bat Poonam Raut whose unhurried batting style, defensive technique and ability to play the ball late reminded one of the original Little Master, Sunil Gavaskar. The run-scoring machine Mitali Raj who possesses every shot in the book and a strong-willed temperament to match. The tall and pugnacious fast bowler Jhulan Goswami who has pegged away with the new ball for years without any fuss. And the precocious young talents of Veda Krishnamurthy and Deepti Sharma who will serve Indian cricket for years to come.
No one though has been as charismatic as Harmanpreet Kaur, a woman whose extended bat swing and hand-eye co-ordination suggests that the Sehwag school of attacking Indian batting is alive and well. She probably should have won us the final of her own bat: five more overs of her at the crease would have been enough. But her knock of 171 not out in the semi finals against the holders Australia must rank as one of the greatest innings in ALL cricket.
The ease with which she hit sixes was reminiscent of another Chandigarh cricket icon, Kapil Dev, in his pomp. In fact, for those who never got to see Kapil Dev’s magical 173 against Zimbabwe in 1983 because of the BBC TV strike, watch Harmanpreet’s innings at Derby; it’s arguably the closest we will get to an Indian equivalent on the sport’s biggest stage.
And yet, the real transformation in Indian women’s cricket goes well beyond the possibility of more sponsorship money flowing in now or the discovery of new stars. It lies in the growing recognition and acceptance that Indian women cricketers now are sportspersons in their own right, without needing hand-outs from a male-dominated universe for their survival.
P T Usha was the original icon of Indian women’s sport. In my view, her achievements in the 1980s must rank her easily amongst the three greatest individual athletes India has produced, if not the finest. Sania Mirza has proven herself quite emphatically on the tennis court; even the rent-a-fatwa army who tried to stir a needless controversy over her dress had to eventually bite the dust. In badminton, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu as Olympic medallists have achieved what no male counterpart has been able to do so far. In almost every sport today, from shooting to gymnastics, Indian women are playing starring roles.
But while sports like tennis and badminton have a tradition of encouraging women to be treated with a degree of fairness (thanks to ‘warrior’ activist-sportswomen like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova), cricket does not have any such legacy of egalitarianism. Even though cricket isn’t a stereotypical ‘physical contact’ sport like football, women somehow were never seen as physically well equipped to play the sport at a competitive level.
In a sense, the barrier that women cricketers faced is not too different to what the Phogat sisters were confronted with in wrestling, while making their way to the top in another avowedly male bastion. Nor was cricket chauvinism India-specific. It took the venerable Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) more than 200 years to open its members pavilion to women in 1998 and even then very few women were initially accommodated. Most victorious England players hadn’t played a game at Lord’s till Sunday’s final because the county calendar wouldn’t allow for women’s cricket on the hallowed turf.
Truth is, more than any considered debate over whether women have the physical strength to play cricket, the game’s feudal traditions were at odds with the idea of women striking a five-and-a-half ounce hard ball out of the park. The masculinity argument was thrown in the face of women cricketers every time they tried to break down the doors of male dominance.
It is that argument which has been defeated once and for all tonight on the cricket grounds of England. The large crowds who turned out for the final didn’t come there out of a sense of curiosity; they came to watch a bloody competitive and skillful game of cricket and that’s what they got.
Which is why this is a moment to raise a toast to Mithali Raj and Team India and say ‘Chak de’ girls, we are proud of you!
Post-script: So has Indian women’s cricket well and truly arrived? I would like to think so but here is one more stern test it must pass. When Mitali Raj next walks down the street in Hyderabad or Harmanpreet in Chandigarh, will you be able to spot them and rush towards them to take a selfie?
Only then can one say with any confidence that the once anonymous Indian woman cricketer has finally emerged from the shadows of the men in blue.