By Nirandhi Gowthaman
“Look! Look! See the billboard!” I remember jumping with excitement in the car when I saw my heroes Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur, Niranjana Nagarajan alongside the men’s cricket team members. The posters and billboards were one of the early promises of a movement towards greater opportunities and visibility for the women team. For an aspiring woman cricketer, it was a sign of a bright future.
The members of the women’s team alongside the members from the men’s team. The picture appeared on billboards in the city (Image source: India Today)

“Women’s game is now developed”

Recent years have been the most fruitful years for Women’s Cricket in India. Especially, the last two years in which the women have paved their way into the mainstream of cricket. The female team has always been on the fringes of the cricketing community. The past years have ushered in the era of professionalism for women cricketers of the country. Beginning with the merger of Women’s Cricket Association of India with BCCI in 2006, the women could have access to world class facilities at the NCA and help of professional trainers and support staff. BCCI has a Women’s Cricket Committee which has succeeded in procuring central contracts for the players. They have played more matches in the past two years than ever before. Thanks to ICC Women’s Championship, all ten full member teams got to play 21 matches each as a part of the championship and four top teams directly qualified for the World Cup to be held later this year in the UK. Televised World Cup matches, simultaneous T20 World Cup ensured greater visibility for the sport and the players. Also, the BCCI permitted the Indian women players to participate in the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia allowing them to have newer opportunities and challenges of overseas T20 leagues. Harmanpreet Kaur, the T20 captain and Indian opener Smriti Mandan were picked up by Sydney Thunder and Brisbane Heat respectively. Kaur, the power hitter impressed with her all-round performances and ended the league with 216 runs and a healthy average of 43.20 in 11 matches.

“Earlier people said there was no future for the women’s game. But now we see how the game has developed” says Chandu V, Karnataka State player and coach at KIOC cricket academy. The 22-year-old credits live telecasts and greater media coverage for the change in attitude towards the game.

Is it all rainbows and sunshine for the women’s game?

Head coach at KIOC, Farhan says “There is scope for more development in the women’s game. They are working hard, going for selections, some get selected, and some don’t. But they still work hard. But the women are not playing a lot of matches like the men. But they are putting a lot of efforts and hard work to play at every level.”

Ever since and even before the merger of the Women’s Cricket Association of India with the BCCI in 2006, the players have faced inequalities. They have been treated as second class citizens by the boards for a long time. This is not only the case with India, but also with other cricketing boards. Be it the offices or the cricket field, the women are still paid lower than the men. If one looks at the central contracts, the women’s A grade contract of INR 15 lakhs is lesser than what a men’s C grade contract pays — INR 25 lakhs. The domestic match fee for women is INR 2,500–3,500, whereas match fee for a member of Tripura playing a Ranji match is around INR 1 lakh.

The BCCI annual awards that have been presented since 2006–07 include only two categories of awards for women — MA Chidambaram Trophy for Best Woman Cricketer and MA Chidambaram Trophy for Best Junior Woman Cricketer. Whereas, it has at least 9 awards for men (one international player and the others for domestic tournaments). BCCI organises 13 major domestic tournaments for men in comparison to only 5 tournaments for the women. Anupriya, a former state level cricketer wrote a guest column for ESPN Cricinfo where she outlines how BCCI’s decision to slash the under 16 and under 25 tournaments affected grassroot level participation.(The BCCI has decided to bring back the under 16 tournament this year). Since the discontinuation of these age group tournaments led to fewer opportunities, girls had to give up on their cricketing dreams.

The call for central contracts took BCCI around nine years to be answered. Now, we are left to wonder how much more time it would take for them to provide an equal playing ground for women. Geoff Lemon’s comment — “The BCCI isn’t just indifferent to women’s cricket: it is hostile” — in his article that appeared in the Guardian is a reminder of how the merger turned out to be not too good for the women.

‘Women are not considered naturals on the cricket pitch’ (Illustration by : Aradhita Som)

Still a gentleman’s game?

We were second in line. Our cart was filled with cricketing gear — helmet, leg pads, thigh pads, gloves, cricket shoes, a kit bag. The cashier looked at the cart, smiled and asked my father, “New kit for your son, sir?” My face lit up with a smile on how the cashier’s schema had made him wrongly deduce that the kit was for my non-present brother.

This anecdote displays the mindset about the ‘gentlemen’s game’. Women are not seen as naturals on the 22-yard stretch. Apart from the biological constraints regarding strength and power, another oft-repeated argument is the under performance of the women’s team. Tracking the performance of the national team in the last year, apart from an unsuccessful show at the T20 World Cup 2016 at home, they won a historic T20 series Down Under, and beat New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and West Indies at home. They also lifted the Asia Cup for the 6th consecutive time beating neighbours Pakistan in the finals. It is only when they get more matches that they can perform.

The perception of cricket being a men’s game has affected women who take up the sport. Sarita, 20-year-old cricketer practicing at KIOC remembers the many comments hurled at her for playing the game. “Tujhe sharam nahi aati kya ladko ka game khelte hue?” (Don’t you feel ashamed of playing a boy’s sport?) is a comment she remembers very clearly. Her 5th grade love for cricket, led her to drop the Journalism course in Delhi and come back home to start training professionally. Though her parents back her pursuit of a cricketing career, her three elder brothers do not support her endeavour. On being asked why so? She laughs it off, says “Pagal hai who” (They are crazy!).

Some cricketers are fortunate to have not just their parents but other people surrounding them to support their passion. So is the case with Chandu, who says “My parents have always supported me. No one has ever asked me why I play with boys or anything like that.” Waves of change will be seen when we don’t differentiate between men’s or women’s cricket, but see it as cricket. Just cricket.

Sprinkling crowds

The long prevailing male chauvinistic attitude towards the game has affected attendance and viewership of the women’s matches. Probably the lack of marketing of the women’s matches is to be blamed for the lack of excitement about the games. An excerpt from an article written by Manuja Veerappa on the eve of match between India and White Ferns at the Chinnaswamy talks of what the women feel about crowd attendance.

This snippet from Manuja Veerappa’s article tells the tale of fan following the team receives.

Last big crowd presence that the Indian team had was at Mohali during the 2016 T20 World Cup game against WI. The crowd thronged to the stadium during the end of India’s chase because of the next match involving the Indian Men’s team. The image of a Kohli and Yuvraj asking the crowd to cheer the women on is somewhat etched in my memory. Even though the women lost that must-win match, it was by far the greatest visibility they had ever received. Because of greater prospects of attendance, the cricket boards have started organizing double-headers where the men’s match follows the women’s match. The banking on the men’s popularity to promote the women’s game is an indicator of the second-class treatment. Though the attendance is appreciated, it is not sufficient.

They have come a long way

At the 2008 pre — departure press conference for the England tour, one of the first questions raised to Mithali was “Who’s the coach of the team?”. From a position of lack of media awareness about them to featuring in ads on TV and billboards, the game has come a long and arduous way to be treated as competitive. With the recent revamp of the BCCI, and inclusion of Diana Edulji in the BCCI panel, the road ahead seems to be smoother than before. Edulji promises to deliver on decisions regarding player’s association, more matches and greater pay for the women. The inclusion of Diana, the only former cricketer in the 4-member panel, is a welcome change.

A lot remains to be done for the game in the country and hopefully, in the near future we can see the team top off their success with a World Cup win in this years contest at England.