One Sunday morning some years ago, I was driving along a State highway on work. It was the day of an India-Australia men’s cricket match. All through, across four districts, I could see young boys playing cricket along the roadside. In some places, young men were playing matches. In the entire distance of more than 200KM, I didn’t see a single girl at play. “Girls just don’t play cricket,” said a local official with a condescending smile when asked.
I thought of his words this weekend, on September 24, at the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London as the Indian women’s team won against England. It was also Jhulan Goswami’s farewell One Day International match after an international career of two decades, bowling 10,005 deliveries in ODIs alone, and getting 355 wickets across formats, of which 255 are in ODIs. Girls and women can indeed play a great deal of very fine cricket.
Transformation in the stands
My sons had bought me the ticket to the match at Lord’s as a birthday present. It was a crisp Saturday morning in London. All around me were entire families — mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts, and lots of little girls and boys wearing caps and carrying packets of crisps as they streamed in from Baker Street towards St John’s Wood. In the serpentine queue to get in at the Heyhoe Flint gate, I could hear people speaking in English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Bengali. Even with the extraordinary growth of interest in women’s cricket in recent years, it was a record turnout that day at Lord’s.
There were girls from the MCC Foundation’s cricket training hubs, and from another initiative for South Asian women to coach girls. An all-women bhangra drumming band kept the tempo spirited and energetic. People got their faces painted and made their ways to their seats carrying beer, soft drinks and fries slathered over with ketchup. They were going to have fun. The atmosphere was festive.
For millions of girls in India and across the world, Goswami has been an inspiration. Two decades ago, in her first match at Lord’s, she plucked a blade of grass from the ground to keep for remembrance in case she never played there again. But here she was, after two decades, adding yet another match and series victory to her extraordinary career record. At 39, she is the oldest woman player to play for India. Older women are supposed to become invisible, but here was Goswami, bowling at Lord’s.
A career of many firsts
Not that Goswami had gotten into the game in a planned way. In 1997 during the Women’s Cricket World Cup, she had watched the Australian women’s team winning against New Zealand at Eden Gardens. She was 15 at the time. The sight made her want to play for India — and win. The teenager from Chakdaha, in West Bengal’s Nadia district, began to do the two-and-a-half-hour trek by train to Vivekananda Park three times a week for training. Eventually this would earn her the title of the Chakdaha Express.
In 2002, Goswami played in her first international match for India. In a career of many firsts, and in a field with rampant discrimination, there she was, building a reputation for herself as a cricketing legend, and adding a record even in her farewell match. Role models like Goswami and Mithali Raj, who also retired recently, have inspired thousands of young girls across India to dream of playing for India — and winning.
The queues at the Heyhoe Flint and Grace Gates at Lord’s included large numbers of women of all ages. There were elderly Tamil women in silk sarees and cardigans, and elderly British women in track suits and trainers. There were little girls wearing jerseys with ‘Deepti’ and ‘Kate’ printed on them. There were little boys who had come to watch. At the Lord’s Tavern, as we ate our jackfruit burgers and beetroot chips, a dad at the next table was explaining the match on the television screen to his little girls.
Sport is noisy and joyous. As Smriti Mandhana hit a boundary, a great roar went up from the crowd. As Kate Cross got Shafali Verma’s wicket, there was another great roar. The game was on. Every now and then, the television camera would pause at a smiling little girl, and her face would appear on the big screen at both sides of the grounds, a reminder of the thousands of girls and women who were watching at home. More than just gazing passively at men playing a match and listening to men commenting on the play, it felt as if the girls and women among the spectators had a stake in that day’s game.
Mandhana’s 50 was elegant and hard won. She watched and waited, patiently, biding her time, as women do. And then in the second half, it was time for Goswami. Her long, springy run, her gangly physique, her sheer exuberance were a pleasure to watch.
A victory for women
A word about the finale, about which so many words have already been spoken and tweeted. Deepti Sharma got Charlie Dean run out at the non-striker’s end with what is referred to as a ‘Mankad’ dismissal. It is very much a part of the rules of cricket. Nevertheless, male cricketers like Stuart Broad (and non-cricketers like Piers Morgan) mansplained and moaned condescendingly that it wasn’t in what they call, with unconcealed elitism, the ‘spirit of cricket’. How predictable that women cricketers are expected to hold up whatever is this so-called ‘spirit of cricket’, while male cricketers are praised for aggression, razor-sharp focus and playing to win. Beyond the very real issue of the gender pay gap, and the abysmal lack of attention for women’s sport, these are some of the deep prejudices that pervade the discourse. The silver lining, as the young sports writer Radha Lath Gupta tweeted, is that at least Sharma managed to get the men to comment on women’s cricket for once.
Fortunately, the world is changing. Girls and boys do watch women’s cricket with interest. Women cricketers are playing with a serious aim to win. Playing sports, even just for fun, gives young girls a sense of achievement, builds their confidence and makes them comfortable in their skin. In rural areas, playgrounds built under the MGNREGA programme are seeing increasing numbers of girls come out to play games such as kabaddi, kho-kho and basketball.
For the families who come to watch a good game at the cricket grounds, the excitement is the same: the huge roar of joy at a boundary or a wicket — and as on this chilly September day in London, the warmth of a terrific match. Most of all, the fun of teaching your girls, just as you teach your boys, about the rules of a game you love.
( Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is an IAS officer.)