In for the long innings

Pioneer Shantha Rangaswamy, the first woman cricketer to hit a six. Photo: K Murali Kumar

Pioneer Shantha Rangaswamy, the first woman cricketer to hit a six. Photo: K Murali Kumar   -  The Hindu

The dasher: Fans loved Shubhangi Kulkarni’s attractive batting style

The dasher: Fans loved Shubhangi Kulkarni’s attractive batting style   -  The Hindu archive

Before the heroics of Mithali Raj and company, Indian women’s cricket had a couple of unassuming poster girls

Women’s cricket in India has been an odyssey that has just about begun to see a radiant horizon. From being non-entities to emerge as icons in modern Indian sports is a dream that someone like Mithali Raj or Jhulan Goswami would love to share with ambitious aspirants.

Raj spoke for her tribe when she confronted a scribe recently for wanting to know who her favourite men’s cricketer was. “Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? Do you ask them who their favourite female cricketer is? I have always been asked who’s your favourite (male) cricketer but you should ask them who their favourite female cricketer is,” she left the scribe embarrassed.

Raj was only underlining the fact that women’s cricket has an identity. There is always a place for women’s cricket even though it does not receive the space it deserves in the media. That has been the constant lament of women cricketers from the time Shantha Rangaswamy and Shubhangi Kulkarni defied many odds to pursue their passion of playing cricket for India.

The lanky Rangaswamy crafted a century. As if to make a point, she also became the first woman cricketer to hit a six. “I was doing what came to me naturally. I was not locked in any competition with anyone,” the 63-year-old says. She was the original brand ambassador for women’s cricket, inspiring a generation of youngsters to take to the game.

Kulkarni, 59, shy and yet firm in her own way, rode the popularity charts with her attractive batting style. She batted for women’s cricket and her feats motivated many to take up the game. “Cricket was not exactly a taboo but it was hard to convince parents to allow their daughters to play what was then considered a man’s game,” ruminates Kulkarni.

The two must take pride in the fascinating performance of the Indian women’s team at the ICC Women’s Wold Cup in England. From making its debut at the 1978 World Cup and finishing winless as hosts, India has come a long way. A semi-final slot in the 2000 edition was a high for the players and this was improved with a runner-up position at the 2005 World Cup in South Africa.

The team, led by the versatile Raj, has backed itself to excel in the past one year. Victories in Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies have brought about a change in the attitude. “The progress is so visible. The skill levels have improved amazingly, especially the running between the wickets. There are very few dot balls,” says Kulkarni.

The Indian girls are far more athletic and flexible in their approach now. “The overall standards have improved a lot. We are seeing last-over finishes in women’s cricket and that means there is competition. We have six teams of near-equal strength in world cricket. A pleasant departure from the time Australia, England and New Zealand dominated women’s cricket,” Kulkarni insists.

Reaching the semi-finals of the 2017 World Cup is a big leap from the seventh position India managed when it hosted the last edition in 2013. The game subsequently appeared to have hit a plateau, sponsorship had dried up and there was despondency all around. “Lack of media presence hurt the game a lot. I have always believed that media plays an important role in highlighting any issue or sport. I am glad there is a lot of space devoted in print and electronic media for women’s cricket now,” says a gleeful Rangaswamy.

Kulkarni and Rangaswamy would like the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to promote the women’s domestic cricket circuit. “Having an international pool of 20 players is not going to help. We have to broaden the base, offer financial security to youngsters and organise more tournaments to identify talent. We have always been among the top four in the world and it is no big deal that we play a semi-final or a final. A title is what is needed,” observes Rangaswamy.

There have been a lot of positives for women cricketers in the last few years — central contracts, more international exposure and increased media coverage. “Visibility is a huge factor. The other day my doctor reeled off the names of Indian team members in a jiffy. A far cry from my time when I would have to inform people that I was an India player. The girls are rising to the expectation and that really augurs well for women’s cricket in India,” notes Kulkarni.

Rangaswamy sums it up aptly, “These are good days for women’s cricket. There is respect and recognition and good money to secure your future. All I want is job security for those who are looking to make a career in cricket.” The performance in this World Cup should pave the way for a rosy future for women pursuing cricket as a career.

Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor, Sports, The Hindu

Published on July 21, 2017
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