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Women’s cricket: Great leap forward

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-07-2017 Dileep Premachandran

But for the couple next door at the motel in South Yarra, I might never have seen Ellyse Perry’s first steps as an international cricketer. The year was 2008. India’s men, who had won the ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa four months earlier, and Australia, were playing at 8pm at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG or The G) and, in a bid to raise the profile of the women’s game, Cricket Australia had scheduled a match between Australia and England as the curtain-raiser.

Like the players, journalists too tend to have a routine on such match days. Mine involved a run along the banks of the Yarra, brunch, a movie (John Duigan’s Flirting) and a nap. But the couple next door, apparently on a tear-stained, recrimination-filled fast track to splitsville, ensured that shut-eye wasn’t possible. By 3pm, I had packed my bag and started walking to The G.

Once there, I made myself a cup of tea, and sat down to make end-of-tour plans. In front of me, the women were just about to start proceedings. I had been covering cricket for nearly a decade, and it spoke volumes of the yawning gender gap in the sport that I struggled to identify more than four or five of the players.

As I caught up with my emails and other things, the match was a near-silent tableau in front of me. I still remember the moment that changed it all. A full toss from England’s Jenny Gunn, still playing nearly a decade on, which Shelley Nitschke smashed for four. The individual in charge of the soundtrack decided that the appropriate tune would be Garbage’s Stupid Girl.

That discordant note made me sit up and watch more closely. Within half an hour, Australia were struggling on 71 for 5 when Perry, making her Twenty20 international debut, made her way to the crease with the enthusiasm of a young foal. She made 29 from 25 balls, including a glorious straight six off Isa Guha.

With her blonde hair tied up in a ponytail, she was fast and accurate with the ball, taking 4 for 20 to wrap up a comfortable win for the hosts. She also ran the dangerous Claire Taylor out.

By then, I was fully switched on. I went to the media manager and requested an interview. Had it been a men’s game, with dozens of journalists in attendance, such an entreaty would have been laughed off. But with the cavernous press box almost empty, it was just minutes before I was called into an adjacent room.

Jhulan Goswami. Photo: Reuters

Perry was just 17 at the time, with braces on her teeth and a grin as wide as the Yarra. “Sensational,” she told me, when asked what the experience had been like. “I’ve never played in front of a crowd like this, and to do so in your home country is just great.”

At the time, such was my ignorance of women’s cricket that I didn’t even know that India had one of the best teams in the world. In South Africa two years earlier, they had lost the World Cup final to Australia. Neetu David, Amita Sharma and Jhulan Goswami had topped the wicket-taking charts as India beat England and New Zealand en route to the final, but their exploits were merely background noise in a country in thrall to a One Day International (ODI) series between India and Pakistan.

Four years later, in 2009, they beat Australia, the hosts, in the third-place play-off. In addition to the ever-reliable Sharma, the team of the tournament included Mithali Raj and Priyanka Roy. By then, the women had also come under the purview of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), with the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI) fading into oblivion.

It was a move that was supposed to vault women’s cricket into the big time. But nothing of the sort happened. The penury of the WCAI days, when tours weren’t possible owing to fund crunches, was replaced by the apathy of the BCCI. Between 2006, when India famously beat England in a Test match at Taunton—inspired by Goswami’s 10-wicket haul and doughty batting from Raj and Anjum Chopra—and 2014, when they beat their hosts again at picturesque Wormsley, India didn’t so much as play a four-day game.

Smriti Mandhana celebrates after scoring a century against the West Indies. Photo: PTI

At the 2013 World Cup on home soil, they were eliminated in the first round, losing even to Sri Lanka, a team they had beaten on 17 previous occasions. The ICC World Twenty20, again in India, three years later, provided no solace either. Another first-round exit, including a loss against Pakistan.

Across the Indian Ocean, Australian women’s cricket had made huge strides, with the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) garnering a big following on television, while thousands of fans added to the atmosphere at the grounds. In India, a women’s Indian Premier League (IPL) is nowhere on the horizon, with the authorities apparently convinced there would be no appetite for it.

Snehal Pradhan, who played six ODIs for India, and is now one of the more forthright and knowledgeable writers on the women’s game, reckons that dreams of a women’s IPL constitute a case of the bandwagon being placed before a much mistreated horse. Speaking of how the game has changed since the BCCI took over, she said: “The biggest loss is a decade without the Under-16 tournament. That was a regular feature under the WCAI. Despite that, and only because of the prevalence of men’s cricket at the grass roots and in the media, India have produced teenage talents like Smriti Mandhana and Deepti Sharma. Until that (Under-16 tournament) happens, an IPL is empty talk.”

What the BCCI has done, albeit years after some of the less affluent cricket boards, is give the leading women players contracts, even if the retainer for captain Mithali Raj (Rs15 lakh) is positively derisory compared with what her male counterpart Virat Kohli gets (Rs2 crore). The last 15 months have, however, seen a definite upturn in the team’s fortunes, culminating in the shock win over England in the World Cup opener last month.

At the World Twenty20 2016, India exited meekly, playing cricket from the dark ages. The batting lacked aggression and invention, and the fielding was atrocious. Only the skill of the bowlers kept the team afloat. Some of those problems remain. The win against England aside, India’s World Cup campaign has been patchy so far. The batters play far too many dot balls, and the scoring rate is far below the standard set by the likes of Australia, New Zealand and England.

The fielding too has been a mixed bag, with some outstanding grabs and stops interspersed with embarrassing lapses. That sloppiness was finally punished in the match against South Africa on 8 July; India lost the game by 115 runs, their first defeat in the tournament.

But as Mandhana’s dazzling innings against England, and cameos from the likes of Veda Krishnamurthy, have shown, India is at least showing the intent required to compete with the very best. At one of her pre-match press conferences, Raj spoke of the sea change that the game has seen since 2013. “In terms of women’s cricket as a whole, and the standard of women’s cricket, it has grown tremendously since the last World Cup,” she said. “Now, anywhere close to 200 is not a winning total. You have to go beyond and over 250. It’s good for the game because that’s how you attract more people to come and watch women’s cricket.”

Not everyone is a convert, as evinced by Waqar Younis’ comments on fewer overs making the women’s game more attractive. As many passionate followers of the women’s game pointed out on social media, there’s already a competition for that. It’s called the Women’s World T20.

Such condescension is hardly the preserve of jocks alone. When I went to Wormsley to watch the first day of the women’s Test against England in 2014, I was the only Indian journalist there. The others had all been mandated to cover a meaningless practice session at The Oval, where the men were playing the final Test of a five-match series.

Raj recognizes that change will take time, time that she and Goswami are fast running out of. “We are not regular on television,” she said, addressing their relative anonymity. “I would like the matches to be televised, but it is not regular. But in the last two to three years, the BCCI has made an effort, and the games are televised. It has increased and improved the profile of the players. Social media has done a great job as well, but there is a lot of catching up to do in terms of recognition.”

Another positive to emerge from the leadership vacuum at the top of the BCCI was the permission granted to Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur to play in last season’s WBBL. The previous dispensation vigorously opposed any player, man or woman, appearing in an overseas league.

Harmanpreet Kaur. Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times

Mandhana had a poor run with the Brisbane Heat before hurting her knee, but Harmanpreet starred for the Sydney Thunder and impressed everyone with her fearless stroke-play. In a match against the Melbourne Stars, she went down on her right knee and hit Gemma Triscari over the extra cover boundary for a six; the shot made even Triscari smile, and went viral on social media.

“I would love to have more players from the Indian squad in the WBBL,” said Raj, who would have been a huge draw in her prime. “It gives them a lot of exposure, especially the youngsters. You get to interact with the best players, and the culture is different in Australia. You see how they train, how they go about their match preparation.”

Perry, now 26 and a veteran, is still at the heart of the Australian side, starring with either bat or ball in most of the games she plays. A group of players she inspired is also ready to take the women’s game to greater heights. In the match against England on 9 July, which was followed by more than a quarter of a million people on the BBC website despite it clashing with the final day of the Lord’s Test match that England’s men’s team won against South Africa, Perry’s dismissal brought 20-year-old Ashleigh Gardner to the crease. The first indigenous Australian to play in a World Cup, Gardner thumped the first ball she faced over square leg for six. If any one moment encapsulated the women’s game coming of age, it was that.

"Players like Smriti (Mandhana) and Deepti (Sharma) no longer have to look for a job with the Railways, because BCCI contracts take good care of the Indian team."- Snehal Pradhan

With the cricket administration in such disarray in India, no contracts have yet been paid for 2016-17, but the very fact that women are now part of the BCCI’s huge gravy train offers hope for the future. “Players like Smriti and Deepti no longer have to look for a job with the Railways, because the BCCI contracts take good care of the Indian team,” says Pradhan, who had to balance her playing ambitions with her day job with Western Railway. “This will also affect the domestic system, allowing states to retain players, and making the domestic competition more balanced. The next step is to take state players in the same direction (contracts), which actually should have happened in the last 10 years.”

For now, the focus is on making the semi-finals of the World Cup, and reclaiming a place among the game’s elite. For that to happen, the batting needs to rediscover the oomph shown in the opening game. “Only the win against England has exhibited a different approach,” says Pradhan, highlighting what she believes were the similarities with the doomed World T20 campaign.

“The next two games (against mighty Australia and New Zealand) will give us a clearer picture (India lost to Australia by eight wickets on Wednesday, and need to avoid defeat against New Zealand later today to qualify for the semi-finals). That said, the win in the qualifier final without Mithali and Jhulan is the biggest indication of this team’s progress. Considering that the Indian team is on the cusp of an era without them, that was a good sign. The fact that this team believes they can win without Mithali and Jhulan is the biggest change,” adds Pradhan.

Mandhana, who strikes the ball as crisply and times it as beautifully as any to have played the game, is at the forefront of that change, as is the sprightly Harmanpreet. The great leap forward may come too late for Raj and Goswami, who have carried the team for well over a decade, but for the generation they inspired, new horizons are within reach. Regardless of what happens over the next week, women’s cricket is here to stay.

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