The Other Half of Cricket

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She was voted Australia’s International Woman Player of the Year in 2007 and 2008. Meet India-born Lisa Carprini Sthalekar, one of the top women cricketers in the world.

Cricket commentators and the media have often dubbed her a quality all-rounder. It is, therefore, with reason that India-born Lisa Carprini Sthalekar is now part of the Australian cricket lexicon. Born in Pune, Sthalekar has had a remarkable journey. Her father moved to Kenya when she was young, and from there they migrated to Australia, where Sthalekar realised her cricketing aspirations.

Her love for the game began with what she calls “mucking around” with her father. “My dad’s Indian, so of course it’s in his blood. He always took me out into the backyard to play,” she says. Then, one day, on a trip to the famous SCG in Sydney, watching a game of cricket live, she fell in love with the sport.

That was in the 80s when women’s cricket in India was still in its nascent stages. In a way, Sthalekar is glad that she was raised in Australia during that time because it gave her the platform to chase her dreams. “I think growing up in the early 80s in India and trying to forge a cricket team would have been extremely difficult. It would have been a lot more difficult to play cricket at the highest level then.” But now, of course, things have changed dramatically in India with women’s cricket, with the BCCI giving a lot more support, she says, adding, “I think I have been blessed being here in Australia and given the opportunities.”

So, backed by a cricket-crazy father, Sthalekar worked her way towards state selection from New South Wales at the age of 18. Four years later, she was already winning national honours, with the media lauding her as one of the biggest drawcards after Australia’s two famous women cricketers—Belinda Clark and Karen Rolton.

It’s been an eventful run for this woman, born to a Maharashtrian father and an English mother. Sthalekar went on to become vice-captain of the Australian women’s cricket team, played World Cup matches and bagged many coveted prizes along the way. In 2007 and 2008, she bagged the Australian International Woman Player of the Year award. She won the Belinda Clark medal (equivalent to the Steve Waugh medal) for three successive years—2006, 2007 and 2008. She was nominated ICC player of the year in 2007.

In her words, “I have been fortunate enough to be part of a very successful Australian side as well as the New South Wales state team. I have to say, winning the World Cup in 2005 was memorable. And there have been a lot of state final matches that went down to the wire, but we ended up on top.”

But despite personal success in her career, Sthalekar wishes women’s cricket enjoyed the same popularity as men’s cricket. “It’s only recently that some of our matches have been televised live, whereas in other countries like England, India and New Zealand, they telecast a lot more female matches.” There are glimmers of hope when she talks about England’s recent success—the two World Cups—which have helped women’s cricket see a dramatic increase in promotion and player support. “I think the sport is on the right path around the world.”

Sthalekar also believes that Twenty20 will be the vehicle to promote women’s cricket. “At the start, I did not enjoy Twenty20 cricket, but as you get older, three hours of cricket is a lot better than six hours. I am now really enjoying the format of Twenty20, and for us females, we are starting to play a lot more and getting a better understanding just watching the IPL. I think a women’s IPL playing as a curtain raiser before the men’s will be a wonderful experience.”

And if there is something she rues about the sport, it is the fact that men’s cricket has hogged all the endorsements, be it in India or Australia. She thinks if companies are smart, they will find that female players will give them a lot more for their money, than the men. “We tend to probably speak a little bit better, are willing to support and help. So I’d like to think we will see some female cricketers’ faces up on posters on the streets.” She hopes that with more women cricketers raising their profile, this fight for more endorsements and sponsorships will even out in time.

Given her colourful and active background, Sthalekar, when asked if she faced any discrimination in her career, ponders. “I have thought about it for a while and I know other people who have found it difficult, but I guess I been blessed that I have never experienced any of that.” In fact, she says she has been “well accepted”. The only discrimination, if at all, was the fact that boys didn’t like her playing, but she says she soon turned that around by getting them out “and they were quick to shut up”.

It is but natural that Sthalekar would find inspiration from another cricket great Sachin Tendulkar, whom she has met a few times and whose meetings Lisa recalls were “special”. Asked if she got any advice from the Little Master, she says no but that they played table tennis in Adelaide a while ago when Tendulkar had his back surgery. “We talked about table tennis, nothing to do with cricket,” she says.

Sthalekar admires Tendulkar no end. “I love how he stops India from doing anything when he is about to bat. The same goes when he is here in Australia. Everyone is just amazed how poised he is after being on the scene for nearly two decades… and it’s wonderful to watch him play.” No wonder, she does not look forward to the day he retires.

Life is pretty full for this attractive cricketer. “I am tired and exhausted at the moment,” she says. “Lots to do and very little time.” Having recently returned from a month’s tour with the Australian team, playing against New Zealand, she is back at work for the next six weeks before going away to the West Indies for the ICC World Cup Twenty20. “So it is about fitting in my professional career plus trying to do 15 hours of cricket skills and fitness work a week, besides trying to see my family and catching up with friends.”

But notwithstanding her hectic schedule, she looks forward to travelling to India. Her last visit was in 2004, when she caught up with her distant cousins and close friends. “I have never felt more comfortable and relaxed,” she says of her visit. Having been brought up in a multi-cultural environment, she says she is more Western, in the sense that she has very little Marathi or Hindi. But there is a dominant Indian influence in her family—every special occasion is about Indian food, and the dining room becomes “an exciting place to be”.

Perhaps that background is the secret of her energy. Sthalekar is not ready to hang up her boots anytime soon. “The schedule is getting busier and busier and I am getting older and older,” she laughs. After the Twenty20 World Cup, she is hoping for a bit of a break. “Then, hopefully, I’ll recharge the batteries and go again.”