Girls playing snow cricket in Panzgam village of Kupwara in Kashmir. Girls travelling all night long and lining up for trials on a misty morning in Barnala. Girls with plastic bats in their hands daring to make their own space in a remote village of Himachal Pradesh. An angry girl from an Uttarakhand village, hell bent to make her destiny, packing her bags and making a dusty cricket ground in Amritsar her home for three years. These are the journeys Indian families would be witnessing in Bollywood movies. The normal fare of domestic abuse and sob stories on the silver screen has already started to look outdated.
Already, 87 women cricketers — 57 Indian and 30 foreign — are in Mumbai to take part in the inaugural Women’s Premier League (WPL). Their journey from villages and small towns to the City of Dreams is replete with images of financial hardships, societal pressure, resistance, and a determination to make a good life for themselves and their families. What has kept them going are a few encouraging individuals and institutions who have held their hand in despair.
The level of competition has gone up considerably. More and more girls are taking up cricket now. Many schools in the region have started sending their girls to us for training. — Prakash Chand, Coach
It is a great opportunity to spend time with overseas players. WPL will also personally provide me a chance to have a look at some young talent from close quarters. I think WPL is a great platform for all Indian players. We have been missing this tournament for a long time. In Australia, the WBBL and The Hundred in England have produced so many hidden talents. After WPL, we are definitely going to get some great talent — Harmanpreet Kaur, Moga-born Indian cricket team captain
They say where there is a will, there is a way. It is a widely accepted belief that women are more adept at finding their way, and if it does not exist, they will make one for themselves.
Take, for example, BBK DAV College for Women, Amritsar. The girls here have been playing cricket for more than three decades when there was hardly anything known as women’s cricket. The college cricket team has won the All India Inter-varsity Cricket Championship a record six times. Coach Prakash Chand, 78, one of the oldest women’s cricket coaches not only in the region but in the country, says, “The level of competition has gone up considerably. More and more girls are taking up cricket now. Many schools have started sending girls to us for training. The focus is on U-15 tournaments because that is the age where basics can be improved and players’ fitness can be raised. The girls are being primarily introduced to the T20 and One-day format.”
The interest among the players and the associations can be gauged from the fact that the Punjab inter-district tournament has raised the number of teams to 16 from the earlier eight. “A year ago, only eight teams from major districts used to participate but now almost all the district units, big or small, are sending their teams for the Punjab senior inter-district tournament,” says Prakash Chand, who has been training cricketers for the last 46 years.
Hindu College in Amritsar, which has produced legendary cricketers such as Bishan Singh Bedi and Madan Lal, is now sending three of its students — Neelam Bisht, Kanika Ahuja and Amanjot Kaur — to the WPL. In the days to come, the trio may become household names just like India captain Harmanpreet Kaur.
Punjab Cricket Association officials say women’s cricket has one peculiarity that it thrives only in an organised set-up. “It has been observed that places where there are regional academies, girls-only schools and colleges, and sports hostels with separate facilities are doing well. Facilities such as free education, boarding and lodging, scholarships, a secure atmosphere and accessibility contribute a lot in developing budding players. Given our culture and society, it is difficult for families to send their girls to play cricket at a far-off ground twice a day,” adds an official.
Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Patiala are contributing the bulk of quality players. Ludhiana girls have been doing exceptionally well in all the age group tournaments for the last two years, sweeping almost all the inter-district tournament titles.
In contrast, women’s cricket in Haryana is dominated by an academy culture. Private academies have started enrolling teenaged girls and honing their skills. Shafali Verma is the prime example.
Haryana, which still struggles to put up teams from every district, emerged champions in the BCCI’s U-15 national tournament in Ranchi in December last year. Coach Manoj Kumar, who runs residential cricket academies for girls in Kaithal and Hisar, says, “Only a handful of districts have full-fledged teams but two-three girls from various pockets train at private academies and appear for state trials in the U-19 and U-23 categories.”
The Haryana Cricket Association, he feels, needs to do more, “but their limitation is that they are not sure whether every district will be able to put up a team if a state-level tournament is hosted by them”. Many girls were in contention for the WPL auction but only two (Shafali Verma and left-arm spinner Preeti Bose) made it, he says.
The Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Women Residential Cricket Academy, Dharamsala, has selected 22 players from seven districts for the 2022-23 season.
Coach Pawan Sen, who has honed the skills of India right-arm fast bowler Renuka Singh Thakur, says, “Women’s cricket is on the rise in HP since 2009. We have 25-30 cricketers in the residential academy and eight to 10 teams in the districts.”
Set up in 2009, it’s the first such academy for women in India. As many as seven girls from the state went for the auction and four cricketers — right-hand batter-wicketkeeper Sushma Verma, right-hand batter Harleen Deol, left-arm spinner Tanuja Kanwar and right-arm fast bowler Renuka Thakur — are now part of the inaugural WPL. All have represented India in one format or the other. Seeing the enthusiasm, HPCA is planning to start an annual inter-district tournament in the state.
Amritsar women’s cricket coach Roma Mehta says, “Earlier, the focus used to be on U-19 cricketers but now the emphasis is on U-15 as this is the ideal age to develop skills. Children from Class VII to XII are being tapped in big numbers.” While the youngsters aim for the stars, the yesteryear players are exploring new avenues in coaching, umpiring and as scorers in the BCCI set-up.
The women cricketers are gung-ho about the advent of WPL but there is also an unfulfilled wish of a region-based franchise. Cricketers say a local franchise increases the chances of cricketers making it to the squad due to local connect and greater accessibility. Also, it gives a better opportunity to add to their fan base.
Although there has been a lot of encouragement to raise women’s cricket, challenges remain. First and foremost is the lack of tournaments in rural and urban areas too. There is still a long way to go before a women’s-only cricket tournament at the state or regional level gets going. As of now, the girls do not have a single platform to test their skills. Coaches pool in two-three nearby districts and organise a series to give match practice. Rajasthan is different from other states in this regard as there are many local-level tournaments organised exclusively for girls.
Secondly, the cricketers’ pool needs to expand. For a beginning, having 15 to 20 players in every district is enough but the number of cricketers has to go up so that competition breeds in. Coaches say in Punjab, girls are coming from far-off districts and little-known schools from rural areas. In Patiala, Sri Aurobindo International School, Sri Guru Teg Bahadur School and others are sending girls to take up cricket.
Government Girls Senior Secondary School, Mall Road, Amritsar, has been a trailblazer in women’s cricket with their students making up the entire team in the inter-district tournaments. “Since the time women’s matches have been telecast live, the sport has seen an exponential growth in terms of viewership and following. Youngsters want to be stars and the sport gives them an instant opportunity,” says Juhi Jain, 29, a coach in Patiala.
Since cricket is a time-consuming game, it is difficult to sustain budding cricketers’ interest. Parents, too, are a little hesitant in committing their children to long hours of practice away from home and occasional travelling. “We try to organise three-match or five-match series in nearby districts so that the girls get enough practice before the tournaments. This is an organisational challenge in women’s cricket,” Jain points out.
In terms of following and viewership, the biggest battle women’s cricket faces is people’s perception. Women’s cricket has always been subjected to the yardstick of the men’s game. It must be borne in mind that the passion, the skill, and athleticism that a spectator gets to see in a men’s sport may not be there in women’s cricket, but to expect such an unrealistic thing is to live in a grossly biased world. Just as the smoothness of moon’s light cannot be compared to the irradiance of sunlight, women’s cricket cannot be compared to the men’s version. And why should it be?
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