The ‘women in blue’ with the bat and the ball, are suddenly front-page news in India. Even in nail-biting defeat, it is a ‘feel good’ moment because truth be told, no one expected the team to qualify beyond the league matches, let alone play the final at Lord’s. The gendered association of women and honour with the nation is complete; mutually reinstated. The Indian media last showed interest in a woman cricketer in May 2017 when fast bowler, Jhulan Goswami became the highest wicket-taker in one-day internationals.
A media that does not tire of reporting heartaches, break-ups and every other single move that male cricketers make hardly found it newsworthy that its women’s team was competing at the highest international level, in the World Cup. When the team reached the finals with Harmanpreet Kaur’s power innings against Australia, stories of their glories began to circulate, relatives and coaches were discovered and fans began to emerge from their anonymity.
Cricket is hardly associated with women and the general public/cricket fan can easily feign ignorance. The Commonwealth Bank in Australia has put out a video testing public knowledge on women’s cricket in Australia and the findings apply universally. Anyone with an opinion or two about cricket and cricketers will have nothing to say about women’s cricket. In fact, some of us devoted cricket followers have been bullied out of cricket discussion forums or mansplained; we are asked if we can tell our in-swingers from out swingers, leg spin from off spin, cover drive from square cut.
The lack of civility in the exchanges extends to the lack of knowledge about the extraordinary lives of these ordinary women who play a sport that is highly racialized and masculinized. One hopes that playing the finals of the top tournament may have changed that.
Cricket is no longer a sport of the colonial elite, patronised by princes and businessmen. Rahul Dravid, in his Bradman Oration of 2011 demonstrated the extent to which cricket had democratized from traditional urban centres like Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, Baroda, Hyderabad and Delhi to small towns and villages.
Kangana Ranaut may have engendered a controversial debate on nepotism in Bollywood but her arguments are completely vindicated in the world of cricket; you cannot survive without talent and skill. There is the resurgent, confident “new India” with a deep dislike for nepotism, entitlement and privilege. The women’s cricket team represents this “new India” that is emerging from the small dusty towns and not from the mega cities.
Most Indian women cricketers have made very arduous journeys from small towns and highly patriarchal communities to the international stage only through their abundant talent, sheer dint of hard work and often the remarkable support of their unconventional families. That is why their everyday stories are such extraordinary and inspiring eye openers into the gendered lives of young women outside the metros.
Consider, Deepti Sharma from Saharanpur/Agra (Uttar Pradesh), Harmanpreet Kaur from Moga (Punjab), Sushma Verma from Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), Ekta Bisht from Almora (Uttarakhand), Rajeshwari Gayakwad from Bijapur (Karnataka), Poonam Yadav from Agra (Uttar Pradesh), Nuzhat Parween from Singrauli (Madhya Pradesh), Jhulan Goswami from Nadia (West Bengal)… All these girls belong to places that are not on the cricketing map of India. They have not trained in prestigious cricket academies with high profile coaches. They took to the sport, either in youthful defiance of social norms or inspired by unlikely heroes and influences.
Nineteen-year-old, Deepti Sharma who displayed her exceptional fielding skills today in the World Cup final by getting a run out through a direct hit and a calm temperament while batting lower down the order, owes her introduction to formal cricket to her ball-throwing skills. Bowling star, Ekta Bisht’s father, a retired army Havaldar set up a tea stall to complement his meagre pension to support his family and Ekta’s cricketing pursuits. Veda Krishnamurthy is the youngest daughter of a cable operator, and her family moved from Chikmagalur to Bangalore so that she could train in a better environment. There are other such stories of defiance, courage, support and resistance.
In 1983, India played the cricket World Cup finals at Lord’s. In 2017, India played the cricket World Cup finals again at Lords. In between, it took 34 years for Indian women to make this journey on a ground owned by the Marylebone Cricket Club, which in turn took 200 plus years to admit women into their membership. These Indian women cricketers have not enjoyed the usual privileges, support teams and networks, best resources and crowd adulation to celebrate their milestones.
Altogether the “gentleman’s game”, cricket, is ruled by bouncers, aggressive bowling and fielding, power hitting, dissent and gendered and racialized verbal exchanges (sledging or mental disintegration) often targeting the opponents. In a country with unbridled displays of masculinity in politics, public life and most of all in cricket, women cricketers have not only proven that this game can be played without the vulgar aggression and sledging but that masculinity is simply overhyped. These are achievements bigger than any victory.
Apart from social achievements of the Indian women’s cricket team, their World Cup feat is particularly astounding given the lack of support from their own Cricket Control Board. The Women’s Cricket Association of India (WICA) merged with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in 2006 with the ambition of receiving greater investments and raising cricket’s profile. However, BCCI considered women’s cricket as either insignificant or onerous and never provided for adequate investments, infrastructure, planning and scheduling to nurture women’s cricket.
Compare the salaries and perks of these women players with their male counterparts; gender equality is a far cry. Most are employed by the Railways and that explains the lack of opportunities for them in terms of finding stable employment. Add to this, a rich dose of everyday sexism is compounded during match days. The women are relentlessly compared to male cricketers and often get referred to as poor versions of the “real” heroes.
But playing the finals of the World Cup is no mean feat, especially in a country where the odds of survival of the female child is anybody’s guess.
Women’s “empowerment” debates will emerge galore in the light of these achievements and we will be inundated with slogans like ‘beti bachao, beti padhao, beti khelao’ or ‘chhoriyan chhoron se kam nahin hain’ etc. Let us acknowledge that some remarkable women playing international cricket matches is not the solution to our rampant gender violence and inequality problems!
If anything, the success of these women is an astute reminder that far from the influence of the elite feminism of the metro cities, women from India’s small towns and cities are ably resisting the gender roles and hierarchies imposed upon them, negotiating uncharted spaces for themselves. They are power packed and restless – to play a long innings, on their own terms!