The Indian women’s cricket team has come home to a rousing welcome. The players deserved such reception, as they played some outstanding cricket at the just concluded ICC ODI World Cup. Although they were not able to lift the trophy, as they lost against hosts England by just nine runs in the final, they did have the satisfaction of beating the English side in the league stage besides drubbing six-time champions Australia in the semifinal.
Fortunately, the tournament was televised and so cricket fans in India got to see some scintillating performances. The whirlwind knock of 171 by Harmanpreet Kaur against Australia, the consistency of Mithali Raj, the sound technique of Poonam Raut or the smashing knocks by Smriti Mandhana, Deepti Sharma and Veda Krishnamurthy -- it was a pleasure to watch them all. The bowling feats too were equally outstanding and Jhulan Goswami’s spell in the final was an effort that deserved a winning end.
The reason why people loved watching the women play was because cricket was played as a sport with a hint of amateurism rather than the professional ball game that men’s cricket has over the time evolved into.
The standard of play may not match the standards that one has got accustomed watching, but the sheer enthusiasm, simplicity and straight forwardness with which the game was played hit an emotional chord with each one of us.
This was exactly how cricket gained popularity. Be it the village greens of England or every corner of India, cricket is played as a fun sport that is played hard, but fair. The manner in which the women played resembled it perfectly. There weren’t any malice, sledging or one-upmanship among the participating teams. The wins and losses were taken as a part and parcel of the game. The celebrations were genuine and even though India lost, the women cricketers showed grace and maturity in defeat that one felt proud of.
Thankfully, the shadow of “match fixing” didn’t hover over the tournament, which was played in excellent spirit throughout. The lovers of the game were treated to a competition, which was genuine and at the same time uncertain.
India was in the driver’s seat to win the final, but watching the body language of the players, one did feel that nerves got better of them. The inexperience gradually became visible in their stroke-play.
The Indian teams of the past were no different in this regard. My memory goes back to the 1979 Oval Test against England. The 438-run target was within our grasp, but we collapsed due to sheer lack of mental toughness. We were not nervous but over enthusiastic, and panicked when things went awry. While this trait of losing on big occasions is still prevalent in the South African men’s side, India seems to have got over it in the last decade or so. This comes through experience and tasting victory from losing positions and establishing domination when in a strong situation. The Mumbai state side is a prime example of mind over matter and that’s why it has won the Ranji Trophy a record 41 times.
The present Indian women’s side reminds me of the days when we played cricket. Money was not as important as the enjoyment of participating in the sport. We were amateurs in a vastly developing professional world of cricket, quite similar to the present Indian women’s team. Most of the girls are from a humble background, having fought through adversity to pursue a sport that they are passionate about without any promised financial gains. I enjoyed what Mithali Raj said when asked how she felt about receiving Rs 50 lakh bonus from the BCCI. She said: “Ask the newer players, as I played when there were no monetary benefits.” This was not her first World Cup final, as India has performed reasonably well in the past too.
Followers of cricket are changing for the better in India. They now recognise top women performers. They may not have won the World Cup, but their sheer resilience and tenacity has turned them into heroes.
The BCCI must now to take the onus of turning the women’s side into a professional unit. The women need to play more domestic tournaments. We also need more dedicated training academies. There needs to be a proper structure to unearth and effectively channelise talent. A franchise based T20 tournament like the IPL could be just the beginning. This could be arranged by ensuring that all the existing IPL franchises have a women’s side under their banners. This would also give young women cricketers the opportunity to interact with their male counterparts.
The women’s Big Bash League has been a hit in Australia and there is no reason why a similar league would not be successful in India. A three-hour slot before or after an IPL match doesn’t look improbable.
(The author is a former India cricketer)