In a country where cricket is religion, women cricketers are invisible spirits

A cricket match is in progress at the Ferozshah Kotla on a sunny winter morning. The bowler, tall and lanky, marks the run-up, checks the field placing and runs in at full blast, the ball ending in the wicketkeeper’s gloves before the batter can realise what happened.

Jhulan Goswami is unperturbed as she walks back, ready to bowl another delivery. It’s a Twenty20 game but there are no screaming fans. In a land where cricket is religion, women cricketers are invisible spirits.

“Except for the obvious difference in raw power, everything is same. There is no leeway given, as far as rules go, for women,” says Purnima Rau, former India captain, current national coach and one of the prominent names in the game.

“The boundary is a little shorter, and the ball half an ounce lighter to fit into a girl’s palm, but other than that, nothing is different. Yes, the ground-clearing sixes aren’t as common. But the cover drives and square cuts and pulls are all present, as are the bouncers,” she adds.

Rau, in a way, is symbolic of the state of women’s cricket in India. While the job of the men’s coach is a coveted one, inviting applications from across the world, Rau’s is an unnoticed one. When not guiding the national team, she takes charge of girls at Baroda – and still has time to spare, since there are hardly any tournaments for women.

“It is difficult to keep the girls motivated when they know there are just two domestic tournaments for them in a year and maybe one international series, not guaranteed. We need to acknowledge the spirit of Indian women cricketers, who persist with the game,” agrees national selector Gargi Banerjee.

It’s a refrain heard repeatedly. Ever since the BCCI took over the administration of women’s cricket in 2006 — it was run by a separate association called the Women’s Cricket Association of India till then — much-needed money has come into the sport but not much else. Bengal coach Murtaza Lodghar admits money is a big incentive for girls to come into the game. But he is more concerned about the overall development of the players.

In fact, three and four-day games have disappeared and there are hardly any new tournaments, which makes girls like Saika Ishaque special! The 17-year-old feisty spinner from Kolkata doesn’t mince words when she says her mother and uncle are all that matter. “Forget cricket, they won’t even let me leave home and get me married off. I love this game and my father wanted me to play, so I will. Nothing else matters,” she laughs.

At the St. Stephen’s College ground, Meghna Singh is busy emulating Goswami. The perky Uttar Pradesh seamer is one of the brightest India prospects and her consistency only makes it better.

In an ironic way, the original essence of cricket survives more in women’s cricket today. “Not everyone can play for India. What I want is for these girls to become confident, independent and successful human beings — and cricket is a game that can help you become one, if you want to learn,” Lodghar says.

Rau adds she would never support a player or team that plays foul to win. “Victory matters but fair victory matters more. Not walking when you know you have nicked, according to me, is a sign of weakness in character,” she says.

A curious worker near the stands comments on the impressive run-in and clean action of the bowler. “Ye lambi wali bahut kamaal hai. Iski ball to ladke bhi na khel sakenge (this tall girl is amazing. Even boys won’t be able to face her)”, he remarks, going about his job, unaware of her identity.

Goswami, the former India captain, is currently third in the ICC world rankings for ODIs and seventh in the all-rounders’ list. She has the last word on the game. “Women’s cricket is dominated by teams like Australia, England and New Zealand because they play a lot. They even have their own version of Ashes. It’s because there, the game is important, not the gender of the players. If we get to play even half as much as they do, we can be on top of the world,” she says.