NEW DELHI(IANS): An unbeaten century on debut in One-Day Internationals (ODI), away from home, at the age of 19. A double-hundred in Tests on the very first visit to England, the highest individual score at that time to boot and still the second-highest ever. An average of 51 in Tests and 49.54 in ODIs. At 5,000-plus, the second-highest ODI run-scorer in the world; add to that over 1,000 runs in Twenty20 Internationals.
These are numbers that would look impressive against the career statistics of any international cricketer. These are figures that would ensure instant recognition for most. But there are no prizes for guessing this particular player — simply because not many would be aware of these, and several more, achievements of Mithali Raj, the current Indian women’s cricket team captain.
Cricket, it is said, is one of only two things that truly unite Indians, the other being films. That august pedestal, however, doesn’t have space for the women’s team. As the World T20 gets underway, Indian women are working on their game away from the constant glare of the spotlight. A historic series win Australia in T20s, followed by another at home against Sri Lanka, has pushed the team into the top four in world rankings and given hope that the team could finally win its maiden world title. The closest it has come to that so far has been the runner-up spot at the 2005 50-over World Cup.
“It’s all about performance. A title at home will not only help Indian cricket, it will change the entire scenario for the sport in the country in terms of recognition and popularity,” believes Anjum Chopra, former captain and now the International Cricket Council (ICC) venue manager for the event at the Ferozeshah Kotla stadium in Delhi.
She may have a point but that doesn’t explain the complete indifference of the system and the administration to the overall development of the women’s game in India. Women’s cricket administration was taken over by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), as per instructions from the ICC to have a single body to run the sport in the country, in 2006. Last year, the BCCI announced central contracts for the women for the first time, four years after Pakistan did so. It was a meagre amount compared to what the men earn — a Mithali in Grade A would still earn less (Rs.15 lakh) than a Stuart Binny in Grade C (Rs.25 lakh) — but it was a start.
If the reader, by any chance, happens to be one of those in a minority who would actually be desirous of knowing about the Indian women players, he or she would have a better chance of finding information and details about the team and its performances on a cricket website than the official BCCI one — simply because the board website doesn’t have any. It doesn’t even list the women in the national team section!
How the world does it
In contrast, Cricket Australia not only treats its women on a par with the men, the male players themselves accord more respect and recognition to their female counterparts. As two-time defending champions, the Australians can be said to have earned it. The fact that the women have their own Big Bash League (BBL) Down Under is proof of the women’s power on and off the field. Ellyse Perry is as much a pin-up celebrity as Steven Smith, perhaps more.
Australia’s victory in the Women’s Ashes in 2015 was hailed across both the mainstream and social media with people such as Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland and players David Warner and Glenn McGrath acknowledging the win. The Englishwomen received commiserations.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has introduced the Women’s Cricket Super League, its own version of domestic T20 league, on the lines of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and BBL, from 2015. The White Ferns, the women’s national team, is also on a par with the men in exposure and monetary terms. In the West Indies, Deandra Dottin and Anisa Mohammed are bigger stars than most members of the men’s side! Here, the men would perhaps struggle to name half the women’s national team players.
Besides Mithali, the only other current member of the side with recall value would be Jhulan Goswami and, to some extent, Harmanpreet Kaur. Mention names like Veda Krishnamurthy, Smriti Mandhana, Poonam Yadav, Niranjana Nagarajan, Shikha Pandey — and all you get from most people, including those who follow the game, are empty stares. These, by the way, are all players who have been around and about for a while now with the national side.
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On the contrary, what made news across the Indian media recently was how the Indian women’s team ‘clamoured’ to get itself clicked with men’s Test captain Virat Kohli when both teams were in Australia for the ODI and T20 series. Not the women’s historic 2-1 T20 series win or the closely-fought 1-2 loss in ODIs. The series win at home against Sri Lanka was airbrushed away.
The achievements are even more remarkable considering that while Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa regularly play Tests and ODIs, India last played a Test against South Africa in 2014, the same year it went to England for a one-off Test — after a gap of eight years, with no warm-up matches or preparation, and the first since the Women’s Cricket Association of India was dissolved.
In her 14-year-long career, Mithali has played just 10 Tests compared to 164 ODIs. If anything, the exposure for the team, at least in the longest format, has reduced. The current chairman of selectors, Shantha Rangaswamy, played 16 Tests in a 15-year career.
Back in 1986, the legendary Diana Edulji was famously quoted as saying that the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the custodians of the laws of the game, should be renamed MCP. While England has improved its own set-up to bring the women on a par with the men, the apathy and indifference to the girls in terms of recognition from its own fraternity in India continues.
More recently, Diana reiterated her contempt for the men by trashing Kevin Pietersen as an MCP in 2010 after the latter claimed cricket was “a man’s game, not for the girls”. Seeking parity, she says, “It is very significant that the event is being held along with the men’s section because our girls will be playing at home. Playing the final and winning it at Eden Gardens would be fabulous. It will also be nice if four women’s team can get to play in the IPL too.”
Second to none
Indian women’s games are rarely televised. Mithali says more live telecasts would automatically raise both the level of players’ performances and their recognition. That, however, happens to be a vicious circle. With no recognition, broadcasters and sponsors are reluctant to come into the women’s game. With no corporate support, recognition remains non-existent.
“We haven’t thought about it, we will look into it sometime in future,” was the terse response from PepsiCo India chairman D. Shivakumar on the occasion of signing up as a team sponsor with the BCCI — only for the men.
That other parameter of performance — world rankings — is more transparent but ironically, in a country that is obsessed with numbers and ranks, even that hasn’t been able to raise the women’s profile. Jhulan is the world’s top-ranked ODI bowler at the moment and seventh in T20s. In contrast, R. Ashwin barely sneaks in at 10th in ODIs. Mithali is third in ODIs and sixth in T20s in batting, same as Kohli. India has two batswomen in the top 10 in every format, Harmanpreet being the other, something even the men can’t boast of.
And yet, while the fortunes of the men, both as a team and individually, are religiously followed, the women are ignored. So much so that, when she was named for the Padma Shri honour by the Indian government last year, Mithali admitted she was surprised given that she had been pitted against Kohli for the same.
World records? The women check that box as well. While Mithali is the second-highest run-scorer in ODIs, Neetu David continues to hold the record for best bowling figures of 8/53 in a Test innings, 21 years after she did it. She is also just five away from the all-time high of 180 ODI wickets held by Australian Cathryn Fitzpatrick. If only numbers were to be a measure of greatness, the women can hold their heads high in every department.
While all the talk about the World T20 in recent days has centred around the India-Pakistan clash on March 19 in Kolkata, hardly anyone is aware of the fact that the same day, women from the two countries would also face off in Delhi. And yet, every time they walk out to the middle, they know there is expectation without the set-up to fulfil them. “We need a big trophy or else women’s cricket in India will die,” says Diana bluntly. That is the kind of pressure, with all the benefits of lack of facilities and exposure, the women can do without.