In small homes and swelling cricket academies, in her native Punjab town and its neighbouring villages, the star of the Indian women’s team at the World Cup, Harmanpreet Kaur, is firing many a dream. Daksh Panwar & Nitin Sharma capture some.
Ditching a track about twirled moustaches, the burly Ludhianvi cab driver switches to the Sufi singer Arif Lohar’s mellifluous rendition of Jugni. The folk instruments chimta and tumbi tug at the heartstrings before the words Alif Allah Chambe di booti in Lohar’s sonorous voice fill the car. It’s to this apt soundtrack that we start our journey to understand the growing cult of Harmanpreet Kaur in the heart of Punjab.
Apt because Harmanpreet, India’s latest cricket icon, isn’t unlike ‘Jugni’, which means a female firefly and, metaphorically, an unencumbered spirit wandering from place to place. The 28-year-old from Moga illuminated the recent edition of the ICC Women’s World Cup with her incandescent batting. And in doing so, she forced her way into — or ‘jaa vadi’ as our folk heroine does in the ballads — the imagination of a people hitherto indifferent to women’s cricket.
Moga stands 70-odd km from Ludhiana, past the chimneys and shopping complexes of the industrial city, and down vast stretches of paddy fields. Harmanpreet, back home for the first time after the World Cup in England, is supposed to have a second roadshow here in three days.
In order to understand the Harmanpreet Kaur phenomenon, it’s imperative to know the place. Moga sits close to the geographical centre of Punjab. This predominantly rural district, in many ways, typifies the state. A Google search of news stories about Moga before July 20, 2017, paints a grim picture. The top headlines are all about misogyny, narcotics, political impunity and corruption, infrastructural underdevelopment and farm distress. After July 20, one name keeps coming up — Harmanpreet Kaur.
Beyond the headlines, on the ground too, you can see the change.
All across Moga are posters and banners offering ‘IELTS coaching’ and ‘Canada, Australia, New Zealand Visa’. The town, like the rest of Punjab, appears almost febrile in its passion to go abroad. But breaking this monopoly in the local ad-scape — that is, electricity poles and bus-stand walls — is a smiling Harmanpreet in the India colours. She is asking you to join whichever private cricket academy, seeking to ride the Harmanpreet gravy train, has plastered her poster at a given place.
To be sure, she was already something of a local celebrity here, but post the World Cup — in fact, to be precise, post the semi-final against Australia — she has been elevated to the title of ‘Moggey te Punjab di Shaan (The Pride of Moga and Punjab)’.
“Us ek innings ne sab change kar diya, sir (That one innings in the semi-final changed everything),” says Kamal Arora, secretary of the Moga District Cricket Association, sitting in his medical store just off the highway that is dotted with coaching institutes and immigration consultancy firms. He is referring to Harmanpreet’s 171 against six-time world champions Australia, an innings of such dominance in a knockout match that it has few parallels in the history of ODI cricket, including men’s.
Not surprisingly then, for people in Moga, it’s that semi-final knock of July 20, and not the World Cup final itself that India lost, that’s their anno Domini — their before and after reference point.
“Tab se Moga ka to har bachcha, har ladki ye hi kehti hai ke mainey to India khelna hai. Parents bhi kehte hain ke aaj ke aaj hi, raaton raat hi Harman taiyyar kar do, bas (Since then, every kid, every girl in Moga wants to play for India. Parents say make them like Harman overnight),” says Arora, with a dollop of exaggeration. “I am getting five to six phone calls every day. Pehle ham logon ke peechhe bhagte the ke apni ladkiyon ko khila lo, ab log hamare peechhe bhaag rahe hain (Earlier we used to chase people asking them to let their daughters play cricket, now they are chasing us).”
More precisely, most such parents, with their little Harmanpreet Kaurs in tow, are heading 21 km west of Moga — to Harmanpreet’s alma mater.nnn
About half-an-hour drive from Moga, in the village of Darapur on the dug-up Ferozepur highway, lies Gyan Jyoti Senior Secondary School. It is an impressive facility, spread over nearly 10 acres, built to tap the local rural population’s aspirations for quality English-medium education. Twelve years ago, one of the students who arrived at its doors was Harmanpreet.
Hartaj Singh Sodhi, who runs the school started by his father and cricket enthusiast Kamal Sodhi, narrates how the institution discovered its most famous student. The Guru Nanak Dev College ground in Moga town, says Hartaj, is where the local residents go for their morning walk. “Once my father was there taking a stroll and he saw this 15-year-old girl playing cricket with boys. The ground is huge, but even then she had such power in her strokes that she was clearing the boundary with ease. My father was impressed with her cricketing basics, athleticism and power.”
The senior Sodhi and his elder son, Yadwinder Singh, who is a cricket coach, approached Harmanpreet’s father and asked him to allow her to pursue cricket at their school. “They told him, ‘Aap apni ladki hamein de do (Give your daughter to us)’. Harmanpreet’s father was stunned, ‘What are you saying!’. We explained that we will take care of her cricket, her education and even accommodation,” says Hartaj.
Harmanpreet’s father, Harmandar Singh Bhullar, was a clerk in a local court but a sports enthusiast. In a story now part of family lore, when Harmanpreet was born, he had got her a T-shirt that said at the back, ‘Good Batsman’. Nevertheless, the sudden offer by the Sodhis to take his daughter under their wings stumped Bhullar.
“It took some convincing. My father assured that he would look after Harman as he would his own daughter. They eventually relented,” says Hartaj.
“And that is how Gyan Jyoti Cricket Academy came up — for Harman,” he adds, pointing with a wave of the hand at the sprawling net facility adjacent to the school.
Her rise was meteoric. Within two years of joining the academy, Harmanpreet broke into the state team and, another couple of years down the line, was picked up to represent India at the 2009 T20 World Cup in England. Along with the cricketer, the academy also prospered.
“When we started, she had to play with boys, with us,” says Hartaj. “There were no women cricketers here. With her success, things gradually began to change.”
It’s 5.30 pm and a group of girls from the academy have assembled for their daily practice. About 14 girls stay and train at the academy. They don’t have to pay for the coaching, but their education and accommodation cost Rs 62,000 per annum. Hartaj says substantial concessions are also offered if a girl’s family can’t afford the fees.
Over time, Gyan Jyoti’s name has spread. Now aspiring cricketers come not only from Moga but also neighbouring districts and even other states — one girl right now is from Muzaffarnagar and another from Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh.
This evening too, Hartaj has applicants. A family from Moga town has come with their daughter, a Class 11 student, for a trial at the academy. She is a basketball player, but now wants to switch to cricket. Why? “Of course, because of her (Harmanpreet),” Akshita Sharma replies promptly.
Two of the academy’s upcoming stars are Ramanpreet Kaur, 16, and Sukhpreet Kaur, 15. They were among the seven ‘Gyan Jyotians’ who represented Moga at the inter-district tournament in June where their team finished joint winners alongside Chandigarh. Both Ramanpreet and Sukhpreet, who hail from nearby villages, grew up on stories of Harmanpreet’s exploits. In due course, they informed their parents that they too wanted to play cricket like “Harman didi”.
The parents took their time agreeing.
Sukhpreet’s father Gurmail Singh is a small farmer in Sadda Singhwala village who also preaches at a gurdwara. “We were hesitant initially. Most villagers said, ‘How can a girl play?’,” says Gurmail, 49. His wife Paramjeet Kaur adds, “Even at the gurdwara, somebody said that girls should not play as the times are bad. In our village, four-five girls have eloped to get married.” Gurmail spoke to Kamal Sodhi for reassurance, before sending Sukhpreet to Gyan Jyoti.
Three months after she had started playing, she broke her nose when a rising ball hit her flush in the face. “Pind wale kehnde ne ki hunn vyah kiddan hoyega (The villagers now say how will she get married). But we understand that if she plays cricket and gets her chance, then like Harman she will also make it big and face the world on her own,” says Paramjeet, 44.
Ramanpreet’s father Gurjant Singh is a prosperous farmer with 30 acres in the village Sekhwan. He belongs to the orthodox Jatt Sikh community, yet, shares Ramanpreet, was most accommodating upon hearing her wish to join the cricket academy.
“We are four brothers, and in our families we have eight boys and two girls. We have never stopped our girls from doing what they want. It has been five years since she started,” says Gurjant, 46.
“After Raman started playing, I began to follow women’s cricket. I had never watched a match on TV — men’s or women’s — before July 23rd (that is, the Women’s World Cup final). But I didn’t budge from the front of the screen that day,” he says.
Gurjant admits he worries more for his son. “Jattan de mundeyan nu tan 10,000 di gaddi roz chahidi. Na kam karde, na padhde (Jatt boys need Rs 10,000 every day for their expenses. They don’t work, don’t study),” he says.
He is also anxious because of the drug menace in the region. “You need to be more watchful of the boys. Her brother is 20 and goes to Moga for IELTS (International English Language Testing System) coaching, and we call him every hour. We call Raman only once a day. We are proud of how she manages,” says Gurjant, as relatives and neighbours start pouring in at the family’s sprawling farmhouse upon hearing that mediapersons have come to meet Ramanpreet.
Kamal Arora’s forehead creases as he tries to recollect the last male cricketer from Moga to represent the state in first-class cricket. “It’s been 22 years since the district was formed, but not a single one,” he finally says. “In this time, there have been many women cricketers who have gone on to play for the state. And Harman, of course, has gone farther than all of them.”
After Harmanpreet, Punjab has seen nine first-class women cricketers from Moga. In the under-19 team too, there are four players from the district, including Ramanpreet.
“Men’s cricket is difficult, I agree, there’s a lot of competition,” adds Arora. “But it can also be said that there’s an encouraging atmosphere for women’s cricket here. That’s why it’s flourishing.”
Of the six cricket academies in Moga, three are exclusively for women. In contrast, some of Punjab’s traditional cricketing centres, such as Patiala, Jalandhar and Ludhiana, don’t even have a full women’s team of own for the inter-district tournaments. They have to field a combined team, says Arora.
To understand the extent of women’s cricket penetration in Moga, head 26 km south of the district headquarters to the village of Rode (pronounced ‘Rodday’). When Moga became the inter-district joint winner this June, nine of the team members were from the Government Senior Secondary School for Girls in this village.
It’s a typical sarkari school: the building underwhelming, the paint peeling. But in a corner of the premises, an incongruous sight meets the eyes. Three adjacent nets stand side by side, with scores of girls practising. The school’s cricket academy came up in 2013 — the same year that Harmanpreet gave the surest glimpse of her potential with a century against England in the last edition of the World Cup. It was also in 2013 that she became India’s vice-captain and even led the team in Mithali Raj’s stead for a series.
In the four years since, the academy has made big strides. “When we started training, there would be 10-12 girls who opted for cricket. Now we have more than 40 girls,” says Prabhdeep Singh, a chemistry teacher and cricket enthusiast who helped set up the academy. “With the help of an NRI, we collected Rs 1.32 lakh, laid two pitches and gave kits to the players.”
But despite the fact that the facilities and coaching at the Rode academy are free, there are other hurdles to cross. Unlike, say, Gyan Jyoti, where most girls are from lower-middle or middle class, upper-caste families, almost all cricketers at Rode hail from Dalit or other weaker sections. Studies and cricket are fine, but they are also expected to work in order to put food on the table.
The Rode school’s brightest prospects are the spin sisters Daljeet Kaur and Lakhbir Kaur, the youngest two of a Dalit labourer’s five daughters. “Lakhbir was one and a half years old when my wife died. I sold children’s clothes door-to-door on a bicycle and later worked in a brick kiln. The girls would also work in the farms. When they told me about cricket, I told them to give their best,” says their father Jagjeet Singh.
His voice breaking, the 47-year-old adds, “On days I don’t get work, I go to watch them play. Unha nu khed-de vekh saari mayoosi dur ho jandi hai (Seeing them play drives away all my anxieties).”
A narrow dirt approach leads to the modest two-room accommodation where the family stays. There is no plaster on the brick walls. There’s no television either, so there is no question of either of the girls having watched the Harmanpreet knock or the World Cup final.
A week before their final match in the Punjab Inter-District on June 21, Daljeet and Lakhbir were sowing paddy for money. “We made Rs 2,000. But later, when our team went further in the tournament, we had to miss work,” says Lakhbir, 16.
Not far from their home is an equally bare and cramped single-room unit where their teammate and medium-pacer Navdeep Kaur lives with mother Gurmail Kaur, who works as an attendant at a private school in the village. Navdeep’s father was set afire allegedly by his own brother. There’s bottled-up anger inside her, admits the 15-year-old, which she has directed towards cricket. “Sometimes, when I get injured, my mother worries a lot. But I tell her it is not worse than what my father suffered,” she says.
The girls made sure they attended Harmanpreet’s first roadshow in Moga, where the town turned out to give her a hero’s welcome. They have also read about the rewards and the deputy superintendent of police job that the state government has offered the cricketer. “Seeing Harman didi’s success, we know if we give our best in cricket and perform, we can get a good job or continue our education,” asserts Lakhbir.
Lakhbir and Daljeet’s grandfather Hazari Singh hopes so too. “People know our village because of Sant ji,” he says. “We want that our girls, like Harman, make such a name that people know the village for them too.”
By ‘Sant ji’ he means Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He was born in Rode.
The World Cup Team
Harmanpreet Kaur: Known for her power-hitting, she once hit a 95-metre six (huge even by men’s cricket standards). A Sehwag fan, the 28-year-old has been noticed by, among others, one of the game’s greatest big-hitters, Adam Gilchrist.
Mithali Raj: The daughter of a sergeant in the IAF, she was encouraged by him to take up cricket. In the recent World Cup, her last, the 34-year-old became the highest run-getter in ODIs in women’s cricket.
Jhulan Goswami: The 34-year-old veteran fast bowler comes from a middle-class family in Chakdaha, a small town in West Bengal’s Nadia district. Jhulan’s father is a former Indian Airlines employee.
Smriti Mandhana: The 21-year-old opener, known for her strokeplay, is from Sangli in Maharashtra. Her father runs a chemical distribution firm, while her elder brother played in the junior cricket circuit.
Punam Raut: The 27-year-old opener’s father is a car driver. Growing up in Mumbai’s Borivali area, Punam at one point used to train with Rohit Sharma.
Veda Krishnamurthy: India’s hard-hitting middle-order mainstay, Veda, 24, belongs to Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka. Her father, a cable operator, sent her to Bengaluru at the age of 15 to pursue cricket.
Sushma Verma: The wicket-keeper is a success story from the Himachal Cricket Association’s academy in Dharamsala. The 24-year-old had full backing of her businessman father.
Deepti Sharma: The 19-year-old Agra native is an all-rounder. The youngest of seven siblings, she was 8 when she and her brother joined Agra’s Ekalavya Sports Academy. She wants to add to her arsenal the ‘carrom ball’ — a delivery perfected by Ravichandran Ashwin.
Shikha Pandey: The medium-pacer is an IAF flight lieutenant. The 28-year-old grew up in Goa, where her father was a teacher at a Kendriya Vidyalaya.
Poonam Yadav: The 25-year-old is an impressive leg-spinner. Like Deepti, she too is from Agra and her father is an ex-Armyman.
Rajashri Gayakwad: The 26-year-old left-arm spinner from Bijapur, is based in Mumbai. With her father dead, a job with the Western Railways on sports quota helped her pursue the game.