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Champion’s league

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on November 23, 2018 Published on November 23, 2018

On the ball: From playing for nothing to making the game a career option, Indian women cricketers have come a long way.   -  The Hindu

Finishing on top in the World T20 is the big ticket Indian women’s cricket needs

Harmanpreet Kaur's team fell one step short of making history. The Kapil Dev-led combination had changed the face of Indian cricket with the epic World Cup win in 1983 and the girls were on the cusp of a similar feat but for a below-par show when it mattered. Having played to perfection in the run up to the penultimate stage and shown all the promise of a title triumph in the ICC World T20 tournament, the Indian girls surrendered to England, losing the semifinal by eight wickets at Antigua.

From playing for nothing to making the game a career option, Indian women cricketers have come a long way. The surge seen in recent times is a tribute to the resilience and commitment of administrators who had a vision for women’s cricket.

Shantha Rangaswamy, Diana Edulji, Shubhangi Kulkarni and Sudha Shah were among the early stars of the game. They became household names over a period of time, but only after enduring the hardships of following a passion that was demanding and often heartbreaking because there were hardly any returns.

“I got nothing as match fee,” says Edulji, who served Indian cricket with distinction after making her international debut in 1976. “This is the best time for women’s cricket, just the kind of platform young kids need to make a career in cricket. Women’s cricket has come a long way from our time; we stayed in dormitories and travelled unreserved in trains and buses,” she recalls.

Women’s cricket took long to flourish in India. The Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI) managed to do a decent job despite financial constraints. It was a task to convince parents to let their daughters play cricket. “There was no financial security. Cricket was considered a man’s game and parents were reluctant mainly because there was no money or job support. I am glad the girls are offered contracts by the BCCI now,” says Tarak Sinha, former coach of the Indian team.

Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues and Jhulan Goswami are popular names on the women’s cricket circuit. “They have a huge following, thanks to the game being televised live. It feels nice to see women cricketers getting the space they deserve. Of course, it was different when I was playing but I am so delighted to see these girls figuring in advertisement campaigns,” gushes former India captain Kulkarni.

Has women’s cricket arrived? It obviously has. Women cricketers are being discussed as much, if not more, as their male counterparts. Finishing the runners-up at last year’s World Cup in England was the result of a plan well followed. “It has taken years but I was always confident that some day women’s cricket would gain recognition. It has now. There is a growing demand among girls to play cricket. They want to emulate Harmanpreet and Smriti. It feels nice,” says Kulkarni.

In the past, women’s cricket was not taken seriously. “Not anymore,” says Kulkarni. “Women’s cricket may not be as competitive as men’s cricket but there are enough reasons to watch these girls play. Their skills are sharper. The fitness levels have gone up. It is thrilling to watch the girls pull off stunning catches and make sliding saves on the field,” she adds.

Edulji, Kulkarni, Rangaswamy and Shah belonged to a generation of players who did not earn a penny from cricket. “In fact, we paid from our pockets to go on international tours where we stayed in university hostels,” remembers Edulji. Travel and accommodation are no longer a burden on the women cricketers now.

Women’s cricket underwent a change when the WCAI merged with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in 2006. Despite the merger, it took 10 years for women cricketers to get the platform they had desired for long. The BCCI was often accused of not promoting women’s cricket. For almost eight years after the merger, the women’s team did not play a Test match.

After the International Cricket Council (ICC) decided to have one body to run men’s and women’s cricket, Australia, England and New Zealand implemented it without losing time. India followed later. The merger helped the women make use of the infrastructure available and in the process gave a fillip to their game. “Playing in front of empty stands was discouraging indeed, but we all knew it was important for women to play as many matches as possible,” says Kulkarni.

Mithali Raj has been a modern icon of sorts for the game. I remember her coming from the railway station to the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi in a cycle rickshaw to report for a camp. Accommodation was in a dormitory and refreshments a luxury. Drinking water arrived in a bucket. Modern women’s cricket in India owes a lot to Raj, who has consistently come up with inspiring performances.

By taking up a seat in the commentary box alonside stalwarts such as Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri, Anjum Chopra, former India captain and a Padma Shri awardee, has shown the way in a man’s world. On the pitch, when Kaur and Mandhana take guard, they symbolise the state of women’s cricket — bright and positive. “We must back them because they have the potential. A world title would give women’s cricket the stature it deserves in India. I expect them to become world champions,” says Edulji. It doesn’t matter, really, if the Indian team failed in its mission. In the eyes of their fans, the girls are as good as champions.

Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor, Sports, The Hindu

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Published on November 23, 2018
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