For Vrinda Rathi, the journey from Chennai to Puducherry on the sprawling East Coast Road last week felt excruciatingly slow, like the world in front of her had shrunk. She kept peering at her watch, the needles seemed stuck. Around 1,000 miles away, in Raipur, N Janani was pacing the balcony of her hotel room. She hit the bed early, but couldn’t get a wink. The next morning, both woke up to a “best of luck” message from each other.
A couple of hours later, they strode into the ground, becoming the first women umpires to officiate in a national age-group domestic cricket tournament—baby steps step into supervising first-class matches.
A few months ago, they sat in the same room writing the board’s level 2 exam that makes them eligible to officiate first-class matches. “I was quite happy for her. There were a few others too, but we struck an immediate rapport, and bonded over the next few days,” says Janani, a techie based in Chennai. Vrinda is a fitness expert based in Nerul, a Mumbai suburb. Both were aspiring cricketers. Vrinda was a medium pacer and Janani a batting all-rounder. Once Vrinda realised her cricketing dreams have hit a roadblock after she was dropped from the Mumbai University team, she embraced scoring while Janani reluctantly buried her dreams for academics and then picked a job with an IT giant.
But there came a time, around 2015, when the monotony of their jobs hit them. Recording cold numbers became tedious. “You’re not involved in the game, you’re sitting far away from the action. It was quite academic,” she says. Janani, too, was getting bored of sitting in her cubicle for several hours, decoding and encrypting binaries. Both longed for a more active involvement in the game.
That’s when Vrinda bumped into Kathy Cross, who was officiating a women’s T20 international match in Mumbai. The Kiwi was the first woman to monitor an international match and Vrinda became curious of her. The nascent curiosity landed her up in an informal conversation with Cross, and the latter quipped: Why don’t you become an umpire? It’s a far more interesting job that what you’re doing now.”
She had a rethink. So did Janani. The latter then came across TNCA’s umpire’s recruitment exam and had no hesitation in sitting the test. “I jumped into. I had grown up watching the game all my life and knew the rules in and out. So I was confident that I would pass the test,” says Janani, who hardly misses a cricket or tennis match in the city.
Her Instagram account is a pile of selfies with cricketers and tennis players — one with Stan Wawrinka is her favourite.
Needless to say, she cleared the test and gradually began officiating TNCA’s third and fourth division matches, where A Aarthi, a doctor-turned umpire gave her company. Meanwhile, Vrinda spent her entire weekend overseeing matches in dusty Mumbai maidans, all the while clearing one test after the other. And this September, they got through the level 2 exam that renders them eligible to supervise first-class matches.
The test itself is a hard nut to crack—the cut off for the written test is 90 percent, and of the 189 participants this year, only 39 got through to the viva voce and practical exams. Several other women aspirants over the years have stumbled at this hurdle.
But Janani and Vrinda would trade anything to be back on a cricket field. Admits Vrinda: “I wanted to feel that pulse of being a cricketer again. I know I couldn’t. So the next best thing is to be in the middle of the action.” For Janani it meant some respite from tedious desk job. But it’s not easy standing in the middle, making decisions, surviving loud appeals, sometimes cold stares from bowlers, grimace from batsmen, mediating spats and scuffles, making split-second decisions, especially in the age-group and league matches where there’s no DRS-cushion. A bad decision can make you brood for hours, which Janani says is the most cardinal sin in their profession. “There’s no point contemplating about it. Even the best make mistakes,” says Janani, who sorts out doubts regarding marginal decision with players after the match.
Both didn’t feel any cultural shock officiating the men’s game. “It was just like any other match. In fact, I believe they’re a little more well behaved when they realise the umpire is a lady,” she says, laughing. Janani concurs: “I remember a third-division match in Chennai wherein at least 3-4 batsmen didn’t wait for my decision (after they had edged). They just walked.”
From Wednesday, they’ll be umpiring the U-23 CK Nayudu matches, Vrinda in Kolkata and Janani in Bhilai. “Slightly bigger boys this time,” says Vrinda, laughing. But she’s unfazed. “It’s a sign that we are doing well,”she says. If any, their graph could spurt higher in the coming months—a Ranji match could be their watershed moment. But the premier domestic tournament won’t be the ceiling of their ambition. An international match is their burning dream.