The latest edition of the Express Adda held at Tote on the Turf in Mumbai hosted Indian women’s cricket stars Harmanpreet Kaur and Punam Raut with former captain and Committee of Administrators (COA) member Diana Edulji. In a discussion moderated by Seema Chishti, Deputy Editor, and Bharat Sundaresan, Assistant Editor, The Indian Express, the three cricketers took questions on their new-found celebrity status, changing attitudes towards Indian women in sport, and their tales of cricketing one-upmanship against boys while growing up.
On the team’s preparation for the World Cup
Diana: Previously, what I observed was that they weren’t enjoying their game, and that is why their performance wasn’t coming up. Before they left, we brought changes in the support staff, encouraged them to increase their confidence level. We ensured they flew business class. They got the kit they wanted. They reached there eight days prior to the tour so that they got acclimatised. All that helped a lot. I would say that made the team happier and more united. That showed on the ground.
On being overwhelmed by the rousing reception back home
Harmanpreet: We had only planned our vacations. We had no idea that so many people were following our progress back home. From whatever we were told, only three-four matches of ours were supposed to be shown on TV. The rest were on a digital platform. But then we found out all our matches were being shown live. Then, as we reached the final, the stadium was packed and so many were watching it back home. We never expected so many people to be waiting to greet us outside the airport. There are so many events that we have to attend. Originally, I was planning a nice break with my family but we have become so busy instead.
Punam: When we were playing the World Cup, we were away from social media, but we did realise that the interest levels were growing back home. My family was keeping me informed, and they were being hounded by the media too. When we lost the finals, we thought okay at least we’re together now so we can digest it somehow, but when we return home it’ll keep haunting us, this nine-run defeat. However, when I returned, the whole of Borivili was there to welcome me. It never felt like we had lost the finals. Earlier, only Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami were known names. But now other names like Harmanpreet Kaur and Punam Raut have also become household names. I haven’t unpacked my bags yet. In fact, I’m trying to avoid some of the events that I get invited to.
On winning the gender wars and playing with boys
Harmanpreet: My brother and I used to have a lot of male friends. We were one group and had formed a team. There used to be some opposition teams who would say we don’t want to play with them since they have a girl. I once got hit on the head and that would scare some people. But my team was so united that they would say we’ll play only if she’s allowed. They never believed I would come this far. Back then, even they would dream about playing for India or batting with (Virender) Sehwag. I used to say I want to do the same, and they would laugh at me saying no, boys and girls can’t play together at that level. I once complained to my father and he explained that boys and girls play the sport separately. I met my coach only after I passed my 10th standard. He started a girls’ team just for me, and I used to feel awkward playing with girls.
On women cricketers in the past not being known for their six-hitting
Diana: I wouldn’t say there weren’t too many sixes and fours in our era. I’ll give you my own example. On our first tour to New Zealand and Australia in 1976-77, Karen Hadlee, then wife of Richard (Hadlee), was playing for New Zealand. He had come for that game and was speaking to us. It was a 54-day tour and a total of 54 dollars as allowance — a dollar a day — and we would survive on French fries. We used to be slim and looked unfed. Richard said that how can you hit sixes, your body structure won’t allow it. I said I’ll take this challenge. Foreign bats were a craze those days, and Crown was a famous bat. I told Richard if I hit a six off his wife, he will give me a Crown bat. I requested Shantha (Rangaswamy), the captain, to send me up the order in what was a county game. I went No.3 or 4 and the wind was in my favour. I used her pace and hit a six off Karen’s bowling. After that I left my batting, said no more, went to Richard and said I want my Crown bat. I got it.
On how parents are still not open to their daughters playing cricket
Punam: There’s so much passion for cricket within us that we don’t ever think about getting tanned. We have been playing this sport from childhood and we loved being out on the field throughout the day. During the off-season, if there was no cricket, then we would play football or some indoor sport. I used to play kho-kho in school. It never came to my mind that I’ll turn dark and what’ll happen aage jaake. There were many people in our society and some of my mother’s friends would keep saying, “Isse ladki ki tarah thoda rehne ke liye sikhao. Ladki ke kaam sikhao.” They used to ask my mother to teach me to dress up like a girl. Then my mother would scold me.
On how the BCCI hasn’t always made life easy for women’s cricket
Diana: I’ve never held back my punches. I’ve always been a BCCI basher right from the day women’s cricket came into BCCI in 2006. Mr Sharad Pawar was the president. He supported us a lot. He was definitely one of the persons who wanted us to merge and the girls to get benefits. The pension scheme started with him. But after he went, it was very difficult. When Mr Srinivasan became president, I went to congratulate him at the Wankhede Stadium and he said, “If I had my way, I wouldn’t let women’s cricket happen.” He hates women’s cricket. I don’t know whether he hates women. BCCI is a very male chauvinist organisation. They never wanted women to dictate terms or get into this thing. I was very vocal right from my playing days, when I started. I was a rebel even in my school days. If I wanted something, I would fight.
I was the only woman cricketer who was allowed to bowl to every visiting men’s team, even Pakistan. In 1974, Clive Lloyd was just playing me out and I said ‘Clive please don’t do this to me. Just show me what my standard is’. He said, ‘You really want to know’. We were at CCI (Cricket Club of India). Next ball, he hit me out of the ground.
On being sledged by the Aussies
Harmanpreet: There’s always sledging while playing against the Aussies. It happened in the semis too. What I always think is hit them for two boundaries and a six, and everyone will fall quiet that way. Jaate hi ek six maar doon aur unhe shaant kar doon. Then they don’t say a word. It happened during a Women’s Big Bash League game too. I was at the non-striker’s end and the batter told me the wicket-keeper was saying stuff about me. It became an issue and the captain and coach came to me at the end of the game and asked me whether I wanted to complain. But I hadn’t heard what she said. And these are two Aussies. Who knows if there was some personal animosity between them from before. I didn’t want to trust either of them.
On Railways being women cricket’s lifeline
Diana: Railways has been, is and will be the lifeline for women cricketers. It started way back in 1976 when I joined the Railways. That time the railway minister was Mr Kamalapati Tripathi. His daughter-in-law was the president of the women’s Cricket Association of India then. We were a separate entity back then. We went to her and said we want jobs. It was in Ferozshah Kotla when Panditji (Tripathi) came on to the ground and asked, ‘What would you like?’ I already had my application in my hand. I got the job. But it took me literally eight years to break the barrier inside the Railways. Air India was the only other employer but they would keep you on contracts, not permanent jobs. That’s why everyone shifted to the Railways. Once we came under the BCCI, there was a men’s Railways team and we got affiliated.
On overcoming personal challenges
Punam: The selections for the Mumbai teams were going on. My grandmother expired a day before the trial. I was concerned whether my father will send me. Everyone was sad. I told him if I can’t go it’s alright. But papa said no problem, ‘You go for your selection and don’t worry about what’s happening at home’. He said, ‘I’ll also come along’. It was wonderful to know that he was being so supportive.
On how the first t-shirt Harmanpreet’s father bought for her read “best batsman”
Harmanpreet: Papa was in office when I was born. They’d decided to name the child Harmanpreet regardless of whether it was a girl or boy. Because my father never got support to be a sportsman, he decided to let his kids do whatever they wanted to do. He tells me he just bought the first t-shirt he saw. It was the first thing I ever wore. But it was only after I played for India that my mother showed it to me. “This is the first dress you wore after being born,” she said, and then I saw “best batsman” written on it. We were all taken aback. My mother said, probably whatever t-shirt he would have bought for me I would become that.