Open Essay

India’s Women Cricketers Have Changed the Game Forever

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is an Open contributor
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Glory in defeat

I HAVE A confession to make; and unlike many confessions, this one is not made sheepishly. Before the recently concluded Women’s World Cup took place, I hadn’t ever watched an entire women’s cricket match.

I watched my first (men’s) Test match in 1969, aged seven, and since then, all my cricket has been unwaveringly male. In this, I am not unlike many thousands of other cricket-watchers, and chauvinism has nothing to do with it. My habits are not an expression of preference for the male game so much as a result of the exclusion of women’s cricket from public view. Women’s international cricket has been around in India since the early 1970s, but it has never been reported or televised properly. Things weren’t much better in England and Australia, the two giants of the women’s game. In fact, players there had to wear short white skirts until quite recently, and it is no wonder that many fans found it hard to take women’s cricket seriously. In cricket, the sartorial dimension is vital. (Recall how long it took orthodox fans to get used to coloured clothing when it was first introduced into the men’s limited-overs game?) At least the Indian women wore flannels from the start. I can remember the very occasional black-and-white photograph in the newspapers of Shanta Rangaswamy, the first great female Indian cricketer, lanky in her trousers. I can also remember reports of male crowds gathering in places like Lucknow and Kanpur to watch visiting Australian and English women’s teams. It was hardly a secret that they came to look at bare, white legs, and not cricket.

In keeping with a prevailing disdain for the women’s game, my cricket provider in the United States—the obnoxious Willow TV, which has a near-monopoly on live cricket in the region—did not bother to stream all the matches from this year’s World Cup. But it did, at least, give us three key games, all of which I watched from first ball to last: the opening fixture between the hosts, England, and India, which India won in a refreshing surprise; the semi-final between Australia and India, which India also won, stunningly; and the final, which India lost narrowly—and infuriatingly—to England. I have little hesitation in saying that that final was the most enjoyable game of cricket I’ve watched this year.

Having tasted women’s cricket at its highest level, I’d like to make a few observations. The first is that no true cricket fan should turn his back on it.

Women’s cricket is skillful and competitive. Its players are athletic and technically adept. There is, however, an old-fashioned quality to it, which is—for the moment—a strong part of its charm. I was struck by how courteous the players were to each other, how impressively accepting of the umpires’ decisions. There was no petulance, no sulking, and certainly no sledging. Bowlers took wickets and smiled, with few of the fist-pumps and roars that you see in the men’s game and none of the expletive-ridden send-offs to batsmen. In fact, I think I saw a player mouth the word ‘fuck’ only once in the three games I watched, and that was when Katherine Brunt—an English bowler often described as high-spirited—was walking back to her mark after being hit for four. She uttered the word to herself, in self-reproach. Contrast that with the men’s game, where the stump mic picks up so much filth that watching a match with young children around can be embarrassing.

There was a gallantry to their game. You knew, watching them play, that these were lovely human beings, comradely, patriotic and chivalrous, who had tried their best but had fallen just short

Call it an amateur spirit, or the result of having played for so long outside the limelight, but the comportment of the women was remarkably civilised. There is more unpleasant behaviour in 15 minutes of a men’s international match than there was in an entire Women’s World Cup (and I’d be tempted to include the qualifying matches, too).

The cricket was old-fashioned in the manner of its execution as well, and the run rates were reminiscent of the way the men batted in the first decade-and-a-half of men’s limited-overs cricket. Batsmen bedded in, and took their time at the crease. The strike was not rotated as often as we’ve come to expect in the present helter-skelter, T20 age. Fields weren’t pierced as readily and fewer sixes were hit. Indian fans of my generation would also have noted that Jhulan Goswami, India’s opening bowler, bowled at about the same pace as Eknath Solkar did in the 1970s, when he opened the bowling for India’s men.

But alongside all of this, we had stirring visions of what the women’s game should—and will—become. Anya Shrubsole bowled in the final with all the canniness and hostility of Jimmy Anderson (accounting, of course, for the difference in pace); and Harmanpreet Kaur mauled the Australian attack so severely in the semis that one had a sense of what the women’s game would be like once other batsmen emulate her audacity. Comparisons with Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli flowed thick and fast as she batted, but by the end of her innings, cricket fans knew that they had in Harmanpreet a true original, a player who had blasted open the women’s game to new possibilities.

There are calls, now, for the setting up of a women’s IPL. My sense is that that would be premature. The Board of Control for Cricket in India, which has been guilty—among its many ugly sins—of treating women’s cricket abysmally, should invest in the women’s game’s grassroots. Writing in The Economic Times, the former Indian cricketer Snehal Pradhan urged the BCCI to set up a national Under-16 tournament. She also offered the brilliant idea of forming a small number of (adult) women’s teams—including players from overseas—who would play exhibition matches alongside the men’s IPL. This, she suggested, could happen for about five years, to give the women’s game in India the time to acquire depth and bench strength.

India lost the final to England, and the loss was felt bitterly by the players. Many wept; but the team’s wise captain, Mithali Raj, knew that she and her girls had thrown the game away. At 191-3 chasing 228, they had only to knock the ball around and stay sane in order to win. Instead, there were brain-freezes, spontaneous combustions, and every other sort of calamity that can befall a batting side in a run chase. But there was also a gallantry to their game that had to be admired. You knew, watching them play, that these were lovely human beings, comradely, patriotic and chivalrous, who had tried their best but had fallen just short. Yet even in defeat, they have changed the game forever. No Indian man can ever say now—without being pilloried or called a fool—that he does not watch women’s cricket.