Watching women play, giving them the media coverage they deserve and creating routes for young girls to emulate their heroines is the best way to remember the team’s World Cup campaign.
In the years to come, many incidents will be scrutinised in much the same way that a certain generation still obsesses over the final strides of the women’s 400m hurdles at Los Angeles in 1984. Back then, it was P.T. Usha dipping for the tape a small fraction behind Romania’s Cristieana Cojocaru. On Sunday evening, it was the what-ifs involving Mithali Raj’s run-out, Harmanpreet Kaur’s ‘Exocet’ straight to a fielder and Veda Krishnamurthy’s go-for-glory shot when a cool head was needed.
But at the end of it all – and let’s not kid ourselves, this nine-run defeat will haunt players and fans for years to come – there was so much to celebrate. By beating each of the big three – England, New Zealand and Australia – in the same tournament, the women ensured that their performances were squarely in the spotlight.
On Sunday, social media could speak of little else. Sachin Tendulkar live-tweeted passages of play, exhorting and encouraging the players, many of whom had started playing the game inspired by his exploits. Rishi Kapoor said something daft, again. Others, who had hitherto shown next to no interest in women’s sport or cricket, made earnest attempts to see what the fuss was about.
Indian seldom cares about its female athletes outside of the fortnights either side of the Olympic Games. It wasn’t always that way. In Usha’s halcyon years in the 1980s, reams of newsprint were devoted to her exploits. Her tussles at continental level with Lydia de Vega were as much a part of India’s sporting canvas as the run-making feats of Sunil Gavaskar. But once a less-than-fit Usha failed in Seoul in 1988, interest in athletics and women’s sport on the whole faded away.
The first time India’s women reached the World Cup final, back in April 2005, Raj and Jhulan Goswami were at the vanguard of a new generation. But forget a prime-time telecast and enthusiastic social-media following, the 2005 final barely caused a ripple back home. Even as Australia batted first and proceeded to win easily, all India’s cricket fans could talk about was a long-haired wonder who had announced himself less than a week earlier. M.S. Dhoni’s 125-ball 148 against Pakistan in Visakhapatnam had given India a new hero and advertisers another wagon to peddle their products.
A year later, with the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI) taking the short road to oblivion and the BCCI taking over the running of the women’s game, you would have thought the girls would be primed for the next big push. The reality was very different.
After finishing third at the 2009 World Cup – they beat Australia, the hosts, in the play-off, in another event that got next to no media attention back home – the team declined steadily. From holding their own against the established powers like England and Australia, performances dipped to such an extent that they lost to Sri Lanka and exited a home World Cup (2013) in the first round.
The 50-over format wasn’t the only casualty. The Twenty20 team struggled horribly. From being World Twenty20 semifinalists in 2009 and 2010, they slipped to the middle of the pack, and then further still. In the long format, the BCCI’s apathy ensured that they didn’t so much as play a Test between 2006 and 2014.
Off the field, things were no better. The lucrative cash awards announced before the final are nothing more than window dressing, to deflect criticism of how little legends of the game like Raj and Goswami have been rewarded. In the days to come, as more climb aboard the bandwagon, you’ll hear strident calls for a women’s IPL, which blithely ignore what a mess the game’s structure is at lower levels.
The average professional woman cricketer barely makes enough to pay for room and board. While at Wisden India, I commissioned a feature on the struggles, what we got instead was a horror story of girls being paid less than manual labourers, who had to skip meals in order to have some money in the bank.
A couple of years ago, UNICEF approached us to help try and organise a tournament for schoolgirls across the country. What we found was that most schools, even in the cities, didn’t even have cricket for girls. Those that got into the game tended to do so by tagging along with their siblings to academies and coaching camps. But while the brothers then had a pathway to follow if they were interested, India still doesn’t have an Under-16 competition for the girls.
But as much as we need to focus on such structural flaws and the hard road ahead, now is also a time to celebrate what these women have achieved. Goswami and Raj were born within ten days of each other at the end of 1982, the year of the Delhi Asiad, when M.D. Valsamma put India’s women athletes centre stage and paved the way for Usha, Shiny Wilson and others.
For the best part of two decades, Raj and Goswami have toiled without a fraction of the remuneration or fame that their male counterparts have garnered. They are not bitter and have been fabulous role models for two generations of girls. But as they come to the end of their journey on the cricket field, it’s vital that India builds on what they’ve achieved.
That means more, and safer, access to sport for women, more media attention, no tolerance for stupid, casual sexism and a sea change in the way we view women in sport. It would help a great deal if we didn’t cast Priyanka Chopra in a biopic about a boxer from the Northeast and if family members stopped worrying about time in the sun affecting a girl’s marital prospects – that was the actual response to a player telling her folks that she had been picked to play for India.
Most of all, we need to can the tokenism and the condescension. Women’s sport isn’t just about World Cups and Olympic Games. These girls need our support and encouragement all year round. If we go and watch them play, give them the coverage they deserve in the media and create routes for young girls to emulate their heroines, then this remarkable World Cup campaign will succeed in being remembered for so much more than the bitter taste of last-minute failure.
These girls deserve that much from us.
Dileep Premachandran was editor-in-chief of Wisden India. He tweets @SpiceBoxofEarth