The strength of a nation’s junior team is often an indication of the robustness of the senior team as well, and a sign that the future is bright. India’s Under-19 teams — both men and women — are currently World Cup winners; there is something gratifying about following champions from promise to fulfilment.
Sport can be a compressed version of life — hopes, disappointments, joys, sorrows, frustrations, injustices, dreams, fulfilment can be experienced over a very short period. And when talent and performance are duly rewarded, there is an inevitability that is heart-warming. In the Women’s Under-19 team, which won the World Cup in South Africa after bowling England out for 68 runs in the final, there were many signposts to the future.
Opener Shweta Sehrawat and medium pacer Titas Sadhu were consistent. The fielding in the final touched great heights with Archana Devi’s catch in the covers and Soumya Tiwari’s direct hit to run out Josie Groves simply brilliant.
Women’s cricket has been on the upswing in India for a while now, due as much to the range of talented players available as to the progressive policies of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Women now earn the same amount as men for international matches.
That Indian girls who first take to the game can now dream of careers in sport, their future assured, is a huge step. But the BCCI will have to make another step or two before satisfaction is complete. Domestic cricket – the nursery for internationals – must be made attractive.
Talent exists. But better pay for domestic tournaments (men’s domestic cricket pays four or five times as much as women’s) will not only attract more to the sport, it will also help in overcoming societal stigma that continues to be attached to sportswomen in India. All societies respect money.
The central contracts, introduced in 2015 sees ₹50 lakh for the top women cricketers (as compared to ₹7 crore for the men). At the very least, the women deserve a substantial rise in their annual salaries.
Recently, India were crowned Asia Cup champions for the seventh time, won a series in England (a 3-0 whitewash), won silver at the Commonwealth Games. In the three-year cycle till 2025, they play 65 internationals. It may be fewer than the men’s in the Future Tours Programme (141 matches over a four-year period till 2027), but with the Women’s IPL in March, two elements crucial to the success of sport — administration and money — are coming together. The third, public support has been building up steadily.
The women’s IPL media rights were sold for ₹951 crore while the team auctions fetched the BCCI ₹4670 crore. These are stunning figures for a sport where the pioneers had to pay their way for travel and food even. But without those pioneers, the Shantha Rangaswamys and Diana Eduljees and Shubhangi Kulkarnis this day would not have dawned.
If one tournament and one innings could be seen as the take-off point, that would have to be the World Cup in 2017 and Harmanpreet Kaur’s 171 against Australia in Derby (115 balls, 20 fours, seven sixes). Her first six changed the tenor of the match. In the Fire Burns Blue, the authors put it simply and powerfully, “never would (a stroke) set the course of a sport so drastically as this one, as an indifferent India finally awoke to the possibilities of women’s cricket.”
Millions watched that innings on television, millions expressed surprise and joy on social media; there was the element of a new discovery in astronomy in the tone of respect and awe.
Women’s cricket had existed for at least half a century in India since the formation of the first clubs; India had produced world class players from Shantha to Mithali Raj, won matches and series before. But that Harmanpreet innings captured a nation’s imagination. Over 45,000 spectators turned up for a match against Australia in Mumbai in December last. As Harmanpreet said, “Life has totally changed.”
The Under-19 win in South Africa under Shafali Verma, already a star in the senior team, is a part of the continuum, from the days of desperation and misery for women cricketers who had the passion but not the support to the days of superstars like Harmanpreet and Smriti Mandhana, who has nearly a million followers on Twitter.
“This is just the beginning,” Shafali Verma said after winning the Under-19 World Cup. Classical narratives can have many beginnings.