Indian women’s cricket steps out of the crease
Regionally, the Karnataka State Cricket Association and Baroda Cricket Association have a good set-up for women’s cricket. But, if you happen to be a young girl aspiring to make a mark in cricket, Mumbai is the place to be. Two tournaments have already been conducted in the city this season and a couple of others are to follow
MUMBAI: Basking in the afterglow of their recent seven-wicket victory over England, as the Under-19 women’s team emerged from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, they defied the most considered airport look. All eyes were on their unmistakable swag – their tees rolled putting their biceps in display, skin-kissed jeans resting above their ankles and an air of confidence swirling around them.
The girls are upbeat about a bright future – they, as well as other aspirants, have come a long way from the time a lone Diana Eduljee was the strident voice of women’s cricket in India.
Indeed, today Indian women in the game earn ₹15 lakh for a Test, ₹6 lakh for an ODI and ₹3 lakh for a T20I – in the same league as their male counterparts.
But, beneath every shine is a story of grit.
An unequal space
There was a time, in not such a distant past, when Ivan Rodrigues would scout hard for an open spot to throw cricket balls at his daughter -- anything would do, from the concrete open area next to the steps of Mount Mary to the outfield of Khar Gymkhana.
This was the time when women’s cricket in India was just a peripheral notion – there were no facilities for them, nor opportunities or competition. Little girls like Jemimah Rodrigues, Ivan’s daughter, could only dream big. It was the time, in the mid-2000s, when the current India international favourite, a four-year-old then, was taking baby steps into the sport.
She was the only girl among 300 boys that had walked in for the MIG selections in 2011. There was no ground for her to play, nor anyone who could throw balls at her, recalled her father, also her coach.
“The first eight years – from age four till 12 – were a real struggle. I used to go to different coaches with folded hands requesting them to let her play some matches with the boys. No one agreed – she was a girl and skinny. They wondered how she would fit in,” said Ivan.
Ivan’s relatives were equally suspicious about his ambition for his daughter. The determined girl overcame the struggles and debuted at 17, but the feat went unrecognised in the absence of media blitzkrieg.
“Jemimah played India at 17 and, imagine, until the age of 15, I didn’t know who Mithali Raj or Harmanpreet Kaur were,” said Ivan.
He also did not know women’s cricket existed till the physical education teacher at St Stanislaus School (where Jemimah’s brothers studied) told him about ongoing selections at Shivaji Park. “They had spotted me taking my daughter for practise at St Stanislaus with my boys.”
Cut to the present: The young women have made many strides from the time Jemimah’s father took her to play with the boys. They are stakeholders in the revolution that has transformed the sport dramatically.
“Parents are now looking at cricket as a serious career option for their girls. Earlier, between a brother and a sister, they would give preference to the brother. Now, when they look at a daughter, who shows a spark, they see a Smriti Mandhana or a Mithali Raj,” said Surekha Bhandari, the former Mumbai cricketer, who has been associated with the women’s game for nearly 50 years after she began playing the sport in 1974.
Money was hard to come by during Surekha’s time and they had to often “beg for donations”. “It’s not a good word, but that is how we played,” she said. Surekha dipped into her own savings to participate in the nationals. The situation changed, she observed, after the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) took over.
“The girls have more money and opportunities now,” she said.
The BCCI has raked in over ₹4,669.99 crore from bids for owning franchises from the Women’s Premier League (WPL). The broadcast rights for the women’s T20 League have been sold for ₹951 crore (for first five years), making the competition one of the most valuable in women’s sport globally.
Regionally, the Karnataka State Cricket Association and Baroda Cricket Association have a good set-up for women’s cricket. But, if you happen to be a young girl aspiring to make a mark in cricket, Mumbai is the place to be. Two tournaments have already been conducted in the city this season and a couple of others are to follow.
Girls take over
Today, the sight of girls playing alongside boys is not an aberration – they practise at the nets with ease. As Sanjay Gaitonde, a coach at Vastu Paranjape Academy in Bandra observed, “We have 10-year-old girls now who come with their mothers or are driven here by their drivers.”
During Jemimah’s time, Ivan had to make an effort to gather girls at St Joseph’s, Bandra, to come and play. “Now, the entire ground is flooded with children. Hence, I have to hold selection trials,” he said, adding that his academy Negev Cricket Academy, Juhu, is known for the girls looking to perfect their game. Ivan also coaches at St Columba Girls School.
“The girls know that with the upcoming WPL (March 4-20) to be held in Mumbai, it will be boom time all around,” said Ivan. “A prominent sports shop owner recently told me that there had been an increase in the number of girls coming to buy cricket kits.”
An MCA coach observed that while 50-60 girls would turn up earlier, “this time the MCA selection trials for the Under-15 Mumbai girls team saw a turnout of 200”.
A tangible proof of the surging popularity of the women’s sport is their rising participation in local tournaments, so much so that MCA has decided to have a women’s league tournament for clubs—the first of its kind in the country. The association is overwhelmed by the response – around 56 teams have shown willingness to play the tournament slated in March.
The enthusiasm of the crowd towards the India-Australia women’s T20s played in Mumbai last year prompted the plan for the tournament.
“This season, the Under-19 teams from West Indies and New Zealand were in Mumbai, as well as the Australia senior team, pointing to the fact that the city has become a base for women’s cricket. There was a crowd of over 40,000 at D Y Patil Stadium and 10,000 at Brabourne Stadium to watch the India vs Australia women’s matches,” said MCA secretary Ajinkya Naik, adding that MCA’s managing committee passed the idea of the tournament unanimously.
There will be seven groups of eight teams each to play 203 matches. “With 15 players in each team, 800-odd women’s cricketers will play,” Naik said. Prior to that, a T20 women’s tournament was organised (Feb 7-10), underscoring the competitive energy already running through the players, very akin to the Kanga League.
Not enough volume
The spurt in interest has led to an equal demand for women cricketers among clubs – the volume is going up but for MCA’s inaugural edition, there’s a catch. There are not enough players. And there are fears that this may lead to poaching among clubs. A club insider says many are paying for the better players to join their club.
Another factor that might compromise the volume is women cricketers walking away from the game after a certain age. “Not everyone gets to play after marriage – I’d say 80% don’t,” said Surekha. “But it all depends on the family. Mine was supportive. Nowadays, a lot of girls choose to remain single as well.”
The traditional notion of ‘shelf-life’ does not influence a spirited player. At 26, leg-spinner and middle-order batter Pranali Redekar cannot be a full-time professional, but is happy to be able to pursue her passion.
“I started late. I used to play gully cricket with my brother before I searched for coaching centres and found Dahisar Sports Club (DSC), which provides free nets for girls. I attend nets two to three times a week in the morning before going to work,” Pranali said, adding that she is looking forward to the MCA’s women’s league.
Women’s matches are usually conducted through the week, which clash with work hours. A science graduate, Pranali works at an analytics company and tailors her work schedule around the matches. “If there is a match, then I work late in the evening or on weekends,” said Pranali, also a qualified scorer from the MCA.
Unlike the BCCI-organised tournaments where facilities are top notch, they are compromised elsewhere. At the maidans, basic needs like dressing rooms and washrooms are absent. The challenge for women becomes harder during menstrual cycles.
At Azad and Cross maidans, the biggest hubs of cricket in the city, players use two nearby public toilets—one next to Fashion Street and another adjacent to the food street. Naik said organisers have acknowledged this lacuna and efforts were being made to have the facilities up to mark. “We will focus on holding matches at gymkhanas (Kennedy Sea Face), or while at Azad or Cross maidans, temporary facilities will be provided,” he said.
For now, there is no rest for the girls: three private tournaments have already been held this season - the Ajit Ghosh Memorial Trophy T20 tournament, Ghatkopar Jolly Gymkhana Under-15 tournament and the third Late Arjun Madhvi Trophy for women’s cricket, a T20 tourney. “Now they will get year-round play, just like men’s cricket,” said an MCA official.
Organisers of these tournaments are struggling to accommodate teams. Last season, Madhvi Trophy was a 16-team affair. This time, 22 teams have requested entry.
“Girls from Thane and Palghar had to travel to Mumbai for cricket, I gave them a platform in Thane. While it started with 16 teams, next season, we will increase it to 32,” said Dr Rajesh Madhvi, organiser of the Madhvi Trophy.
Sure, women’s cricket is headed for exciting times, but Gaitonde has a word of caution. “I have seen that whenever money comes into any activity, there is a lot of manipulation, especially in India. It must be controlled.”
This is no time to worry; for now, play on, girls.