If one is looking for girls who hid their cricket kit bag from parents to avoid a beating or those who had to defy taboo to venture out to play with the boys, the Indian women’s cricket team is a good place to find this stereotype. When seasoned fast bowler Jhulan Goswami started playing tennis-ball cricket, she sneaked out at times without telling her family. India captain Mithali Raj’s relatives were worried about prospective grooms looking the other way because of the tan she had developed.
But prod the current lot, during the World T20 camp, for tales about parents who disapproved their enthusiasm to play cricket or of battling gender prejudice and chances are you are likely to jot down only a few notes on an otherwise blank page. Both Mithali and Jhulan are 33 and are the bridge between the two eras — one during which playing for the country earned you a pittance and sneers and this new generation with contracts worth up to Rs 15 lakh annually.
Basic financial security (Grade ‘A’ men are paid Rs 1 crore; top Australian women cricketers can earn $80,000), air travel, accommodation at plush hotels, access to stadiums and training grounds used by male counterparts and a professional set-up, including a coach, manager, physio, trainer and video analyst are provided to the girls who play Bangladesh in the World T20 opener in Bangalore on Tuesday. The Women’s Cricket Association of India, which ran the sport in the country, was merged with the Board of Control for Cricket in India nearly a decade ago, but it is only now — with central contracts being handed out and state associations throwing the doors open — that the sport has become an attractive career option.
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The winds of change are making it easier for women’s cricket to retain talent, which would have been lost earlier had it remained in the dark ages. Smriti Mandana, the left-handed opener of the Indian team, gave up playing cricket for two years because her mother didn’t like her teenage daughter from the middle-class family travelling ‘unreserved’ in trains and staying in a dormitory.
“My mother didn’t think it was advisable for me to rough it out when it came to travelling to new places. We would have to travel for two days at times by train to represent the state in age-group tournaments. Only when the facilities improved for women cricketers did my mother let me get back to playing,” Mandana, 19, one of the seven players who have a ‘B’ Grade contract says
Winds of change
Left-arm spinner Rajeshwari Gayakwad, from Vijayapura, a small town in Karnataka, was perpetually worried about her finances. Her father, a principal in a government school, passed away two years ago and Rajeshwari wondered how she would make both ends meet for her large family. Being one of the 11 contracted players has eased her tension to a large extent. Gayakwad was an athlete, a javelin thrower, before taking up cricket. Cricket academies for women are helping to lure the youth away from other sports. They have been established by state associations in Guntur in Andhra, and Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.
The wicket-keeper of the World T20 team, Sushma Verma, is a product of the academy system, the first cricketer from Himachal Pradesh to represent India, even before Rishi Dhawan made his international debut. Verma wasn’t panned for taking up the sport and her journey from dabbling in hockey and volleyball, to falling in love with cricket was made easier because of the system in place back home. “The set-up for women’ cricket in India is much more professional now,” India coach Purnima Rau says before elaborating on the advantage of well-planned limited overs tour before the World T20.
“We have been playing limited overs cricket continuously over the past two months. At the end of the domestic competition we travelled to Australia, followed by the home series in Sri Lanka. We had a week-long camp and the girls are relaxed and confident. The series win against defending champions Australia (T20) and against Sri Lanka (T20/ODI) at home has given this team the right momentum,” Rau says.
The coach belongs to the previous generation and has her own treasure trove of stories of sleeping on platforms, on the floor between berths in trains or on top of kitbags kept near the toilet as she criss-crossed the country to play the game.
“These girls are lucky that things have improved for women cricketers. If you compare the benefits and the facilities now to the era when Diana Edulji and Shanta Rangaswamy played, there is a world of a difference,” Rau adds. Edulji recalls a little-known boycott threat in Indian sport which dates back to the late 1970s.
The national team captained by her had refused to take the field for the World Cup game against Australia at the Moin-ul Haq Stadium in Patna till the Women’s Cricket Association of India reimbursed the money the cricketers had spent from their pocket for accommodation, food and travel. The government of Bihar deputed its chief secretary to negotiate with the India skipper.
“The chief secretary promised that the money would be handed over to us by 11 am on the day of the match,” Edulji says.
The irony was that in Patna the stands were packed to the rafters for the women’s World Cup matches, but the Indian cricketers were playing without a penny in their pocket.
“At 11 am during the game, I brought a substitute on and went off the field to check if we were getting what was due to us or not. There were 25,000 people at the stadium and the gate money was used to pay us,” the Indian captain says about how close the team was to forfeiting the World Cup match.
In the next edition of the tournament four years later, the women were asked to pay Rs 10,000 from their own pocket to travel to Australia for the World Cup. A newspaper article about the plight of the team in a Mumbai daily caught the attention of the then chief minister Abdul Rehman Antulay and he personally handed over Rs 40,000 to the four players from the state.
Till the early 80s, cricket in the country was yet to be touched by big money. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) could afford to pay the Kapil Dev-led 1983 World Cup winning squad prize money only after Lata Mangeshkar organised a concert to raise funds. The men’s game underwent a revolution after the famous win at Lord’s, but the women’s game, bereft of similar success, remained neglected.
Edulji believes the moment has arrived for women to turn the corner. “This current team should reach the semi-finals. But if women cricketers are to get their due, the team must win the World T20. There is a lot more that needs to be done for women’s cricket. Winning at home will change everything for the better.”