In 1976, Malabar Christian College got its first ever women’s cricket team.
About time, too. In the campus located in the heart of Calicut city, handy for movie theatres, beaches and tolerant dim-lit restaurants, girls outnumbered boys 60-40. Not that us guys, spoilt for choice when it came to campus romance, were complaining.
The Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” was already two years old. Junko Tabei was a starred entry in the latest issue of “General Knowledge”. Nadia Comaneci, the 15-year-old Romanian prodigy, was a poster-sized presence on the front pages of the mainstream press. We had heard stories of Bombay’s Albees Club, featuring such luminaries as Sunil Gavaskar’s sister Nutan and Farokh Engineer’s cousin Tina Lalo. And memories, culled from newspaper accounts of the time, lingered of the 1975 tour by an Australian Under-19 women’s team led by Cecilia Wilson, when crowds in excess of 30,000 turned out to watch three Tests in Poona, Delhi and Calcutta against an Indian team featuring emerging talents Shanta Rangaswamy, Diana Eduljee and the 16-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman Fowzieh Khalili.
“Visible music between the wickets,” an overwrought reporter for one of the mainstream Malayalam newspapers had written of Rangaswamy at the time. The girls in our college decided they wanted to make music too. So they came together, some 30 pioneering high spirits, as the MCC Women’s Cricket Club (even, in acronym form as MCCWCC, a case of overkill).
Us guys from the men’s team got roped into coaching them, with two strait-laced professors keeping watch to ensure that said coaching did not segue into what they euphemistically termed “undesirable activities”. There was an air of something new and strange and wonderful about the whole thing.
After about a month of this, we split the best of the girls into two teams and organised a practice match to check on progress. Yatheendran, who opened the bowling for the men’s team, and I were commandeered for umpiring duties. Early on in the proceedings, the opening bowler jogged in at a gentle 15 kmph, released the ball in a medley of arms and legs and the trailing ends of her dupatta, landed it somewhere mid-pitch and watched as the batsman took an almighty heave, missed, and took the ball on the pad in front of middle.
I remained unmoved, foreshadowing Steve Bucknor by a couple of decades. A few balls later, it happened again – and this time, my refusal to give the LBW caused some anguished mutterings among the fielders. When it happened for a third time, the girls got together for an agitated mid-pitch conference; the captain then led a small deputation over to where I stood and demanded to know why it wasn’t out.
“It was out,” I said. Then why didn’t you give it?! “No one appealed,” I pointed out reasonably. I explained to the deputation that when us guys yelled “howzaat” and generally carried on like a bunch of rowdies, we were actually asking the umpire the question. Everyone nodded in complete understanding, engaged in a quick whispered conference, and wandered off to their places.
A while later their chance came again. Bat struck air, ball struck pad. The bowler whirled around, threw her arms up in the air and yelled for all she was worth:
I laughed my head off then even as I raised my finger. It is the last time I remember laughing at women playing cricket.
The three weeks since my last “fortnightly” column have been unusually fecund for lovers of sport. The Big Four continue to raise the bar at Wimbledon, showcasing new skills to go with established pedigree. Srikanth Kidambi, PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal float around badminton courts the world over, performing prodigies with their combination of power and touch. At the cricket, a South Africa looking to rebuild locks horns with an England looking to recoup. And for what it is worth, the Indian men’s team in the aftermath of the Champion’s Trophy defeat engages the West Indies in a series of one-day games – a case of getting in some practice after the actual tournament is over.
And yet, the best part of the past three weeks has been the ICC Women’s World Cup, now 20 matches in and counting down to the July 23 finale at Lord’s. Here is cricket as it is meant to be played – and watched.
An easier, better time
The crowds are gentler, and more appreciative. Fervent fans throng the grounds, kitted out in the colors of their teams – but there is none of the garish, face-painted jingoism that characterises crowds at the men’s game. The other day in Leicester, when India after four wins on the trot went down tamely to South Africa, the fans stayed back to give the Indian women a round of applause – a marked change from followers of the men’s game who head for the exits when defeat seems inevitable.
The commentary is calm, sensible, and remarkably even-toned, with none of the “patriotic” one-sidedness mandated by an Amitabh Bachchan or the manufactured hysteria of a Ravi Shastri or a Danny Morrison. Fortuitous fours don’t cue screamed superlatives; good strokes draw nuanced description. (There is some mild amusement to be had, though, in listening to the voices struggle with “batswoman”, then give up the clumsy construct in favour of the gender-neutral “batter”, as though you were discussing the technique of making pakoras.)
The telecast is clean and neat and, praise the Lord and pass the potatoes, uninterrupted by cutaways to Bollywood shills flogging everything from agarbathis to banians. You get to see what happens not merely during each over but also in-between overs – the quick conferences and the resulting field readjustments, the whole spiced by the songs on the PA system and the crowds jiving to the music. Cricket is a stop-start game of micro-incidents, a possible 600 of them in course of a one-day match; what happens in the interregnums is as essential, and often as compelling, as the action itself – and this tournament serves as a welcome reminder of that aspect.
No brute force here, thank you
And then there is the game itself, and the way the women play it. “As a batsman,” Mike Selvey wrote in the Guardian during the previous edition of the World Cup, “(Sarah) Taylor is a rarity in women’s cricket in that she has a well-developed offside game: her cover driving last summer was as exquisite as any that came from the bat of Hashim Amla or Ian Bell. When she needs to hit over the top it is significant that she can go over mid-off rather than the default leg-side that women tend to favour as the only means of gaining power in the stroke.”
Budget for Selvey’s patriotic myopia – even back in 2013, the likes of India’s Thirush Kamini, Punam Raut, Harmanpreet Kaur and Mithali Raj, England’s Jenny Gunn and Charlotte Edwards, the West Indies’ Stefanie Taylor, New Zealand’s Sophie Devine and Suzie Bates, and Australia’s Rachael Haynes and Ellyse Perry were showcasing on grounds in Bombay and Cuttack impeccable driving skills off either foot, on either side of the wicket.
But even so, the progress over four years is remarkable – and remarkably visible. As brute force swamps the men’s game and forces out the stylists (a Cheteswar Pujara for instance is an archaic artefact in the one-day game), the women’s game is increasingly the last refuge of the cricket tragic, the only remaining avenue to revel in the aesthetic delights of the game.
To watch a Mithali Raj, a Sarah Taylor or a Meg Lanning drive, with full front foot extension and free-flowing bat swing, through the covers or to see a Smriti Mandhana stand tall and drive square and over mid-off on the rise is to experience all the wonder and delight of unexpectedly stumbling on some fauna presumed long-extinct.
Thumping lofts down the straight, diving stops, relay throws and direct hits from the outfield, flight and loop and guile and deception from both off and leg-spinners, no-look stumpings (Sushma Verma, Susan Taylor)– it’s all there, in glorious perfection, in the distaff side of the game. And this display of all-round skill comes without the modern-day concomitants of over the top celebrations at the downfall of an opponent, of “aggression” and “passion” expressed through filthy abuse.
Despite, not because, of the system
And much of this is happening despite, not because of, the system. The Australians have played scintillating cricket under the shadow of looming unemployment; the West Indies women share the plight of their men who have been forced to become wandering mercenaries. The Indian fielding has come in for repeated stick, uncaring of the fact that it was only on May 29 this year that the team – which by then had won 16 of its last 17 ODIs – got in Biju George its first ever fielding coach.
There is so much to appreciate and to savour. And so very little to miss – unless it is the HAGs. I mean, what, no slideshows accompanied by breathless captions featuring Husbands and Guyfriends?
PostScript: The International Cricket Council is missing a lucrative bet. On its cricket store, it continues to flog memorabilia from the month-old Champions’ Trophy, but there is nary a sign of any similar items from the women’s game.
I’d pay good money for an autographed poster of Mithali Raj on the sidelines at Derby, padded up and reading Rumi while awaiting her turn at bat against England.
It’s not that Raj – who was making her record-breaking international debut when team-mate Harmanpreet Kaur was in diapers and latest national crush Smriti Mandhana was learning to walk without falling over on her face – was reading. It’s not even that Raj was reading Rumi.
What makes the image worth top dollar for me is this: What international sportsperson thinks to even pack a book in her kit when readying to lead her team in the opening game of a global tournament? The appellation ‘Captain Cool’ has been conferred on others for far less.