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All about survival

Without money, access to facilities or infrastructure, women's cricket in India is a saga of fighting against the odds, writes S. DINAKAR.


Brave women of Indian cricket.

THE sense of grief was overwhelming. One attempted momentary relief by sleeping through the long journey back even as the van driver wound his way through the maddening, often chaotic, evening traffic but the images of death and destruction kept flashing in the memory zone.

We entered the road lining the Marina. The normally bustling beach looked deserted and the waves still appeared angry. The tsunami was less than 60 hours old in Chennai; the scars were visible and the spectre of fear had not disappeared. On view were a few curious onlookers — tourists perhaps — and then the empty stretches of sand, where so many lives had been lost and families dispersed, that had been submerged under the violent sea only days back. It was the kind of day that made your heart and body heavy.


In the context of such a massive human tragedy, the scenes of jubilation witnessed in a sporting arena minutes earlier seemed surreal. For, in the ocean of life, sport is no more than a speck.

The Indian women had, defending a meagre score with much resolve and fight, pulled off an exciting win at the picturesque Mayajaal ground to make the score line in the series defeat against the Aussies — it was 3-4 now — more respectable.

Then again, even in the worst of times, sport has its own relevance. It offers hope and sunshine. Sport, in its essence, is about all about resilience.

As she returned after partaking in the brief celebration, Indian captain Mamta Maben, her knee injured and her face pale, dwelt on tales of survival among the women cricketers. Her story too, like several of her ilk, is quite extraordinary.

A journalist with a Bangalore daily, Mamta was left with a difficult choice — cricket or a regular job — when her father passed away. She was the sole breadwinner in the family and it was a tough call. She opted for the game. "I had to support my family, but I gave up my job. The experience of representing the country is beyond anything else. I've had some tough times. Sometimes, you feel the need for money, but... ," the 34-year-old cricketer trails off.

There are the other sacrifices that have to be made. "As a girl, you cannot be bothered about your looks, your complexion, those kinds of things on the field, under the sun. In Indian society, there is the question of marriage. Most of us try to put that off," Mamta says.

Love of the game

When a woman cricketer states that she plays cricket only for the love of the game, it is without a hint of exaggeration. It cannot be for anything else.

All that the women who wear the India cap earn from a One Day International is Rs. 1,000 apart from the prize money, which is not substantial in any case, at the end of each match and series; not even pocket change in the lucrative domain of men's cricket.

For the effort they put in, the time that they take out for cricket, and for their sheer dedication, these girls deserve a better deal, and a lot more recognition. Presently, there are only two organisations — Indian Railways and Air India — that provide either employment or contracts to women cricketers. There are limited jobs on offer and plenty of girls, despite the promise, are forced to give up the game early.

And several are discouraged from pursuing cricket after marriage. Despite the odds, the Secretary of Women's Cricket Association of India (WCAI), Shubhangi Kulkarni, remains hopeful. "Deepa Kulkarni got married and her family has encouraged her to continue playing."

For those of us pampered on huge diets of cricket among the "supermen" as the hype merchants often declare, witnessing women's cricket, where you can actually glimpse the soul of the game, can be an enriching experience.

Here, only the passion for cricket acts as the driving force. Here, money is not even a fringe factor. And here, sponsorship is marginal. The old world charm that envelops women's cricket provides it a distinct "informal" identity.


Despite the hurdles, the national side has delighted more than disappointed, defeating World Cup winner New Zealand at home, outplaying the West Indies and running Australia close recently.

Shubanghi says much emphasis was laid on fitness, fielding, and running between the wickets during a month-long camp in Chennai ahead of the season — the team now has a fitness trainer — and the hard work has not gone waste. A stiffer test, however, awaits the side in the 2005 World Cup in South Africa (March). Coach Sudha Shah says the team, which can be brilliant in phases, has to be consistent.

The question of merger would also come up at the big event. While the men's and the women's cricket associations have unified in Australia, England and New Zealand, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has been largely silent on the issue. Shubhangi, however, is hopeful that since the International Women's Cricket Council and the International Cricket Council will come together during the World Cup, all the countries will eventually be left with only one body, for men and women.


Such a development would benefit the Indian women, who, strapped for funds, cannot afford a video analyst, and are often left without necessary infrastructure for practice. "Our girls are very talented. If they get similar facilities (as men) they would perform better," Shubhangi says.

Then, they might also be able to display their skill in the major stadiums without being confined to the private grounds, which sometimes are not easily accessible. Bigger the stage, greater will be the response, and the crowd support is essential.

Among the positive developments, Citibank and Infosys are keen to chip in with their bit, Indian Airlines has reacted favourably to the idea of providing employment, and Doordarshan did telecast live all the matches of the India-Australia series.

In a bid to rope in more sponsors, the WCAI has tried various experiments, even roping in Mandira Bedi, to provide a touch of glamour.

These brave women of Indian cricket deserve all the encouragement. There is as much courage in the kind of choices that they make as in standing up to a furious spell from Malcolm Marshall at his meanest... perhaps more.

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