When 22-year-old Apoorva Kokil and her teammates travelled to Srinagar last year for an inter-university cricket tournament, they found themselves struggling to find seats in the train compartment. The Khalsa College contingent had boarded the train at Bhopal for an overnight journey to Srinagar. “None of our seats were confirmed,” recalled Kokil, “We had a match the next day and throughout the night, we had to keep changing places as those with reserved seats came in.”
The ICC Women’s World Cup is in town but for our women cricketers, such instances are the norm, rather than an exception. With low match fees and a shorter playing season as compared to their male counterparts, women’s cricket struggles to be part of the mainstream. Hopes were high when the Board of Control for Cricket in India took over from the Mumbai Women’s Cricket Association in 2006, but the improvements have been marginal.
“The first two years or so were very good,” Kokil said. “We were paid for the matches, we had good hotel accommodation… but since then it’s been stagnant.” Sunetra Paranjape, who has represented India in tests and one-dayers, added that while cricketers are now paid match fees and play on better grounds, the number of matches has reduced significantly. “They don’t necessarily have to be BCCI-organised,” she said, “We should have more matches with different clubs and associations in the city, like we used to earlier.” Without enough local matches to hone their skills, women cricketers lose touch, and fitness levels dip. A typical season lasts from November to January, unlike with male cricketers whose tournaments stretch from September to March. “I’m not sure why that is happening,” said Paranjape, “Perhaps the schedules of the men and women’s domestic matches clash, and there isn’t a ground available for [the latter] to play.” The BCCI had introduced a two-day tournament in 2006, but scrapped it a couple of years later.
“In a year, we play about eight matches,” said Kokil, who is currently captain of the Khalsa College senior team and vicecaptain of Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy squad, “And that’s only if we qualify [for the next level]. Some teams practise the whole year and play in barely four.” Apart from the struggle to keep in touch with the game, there’s a distinct lack of financial security. Women cricketers often pay for their own kits, except for a handful who have managed to bag sponsorship contracts. “The men, however, have contracts with companies like Nike and Adidas,” said Paranjape.
Surekha Bhandare, former state-level cricketer and joint secretary of the Women’s Cricket Association of India, felt that low earnings often discourage women players from continuing with cricket for long. “When we started, we didn’t have money but there were people who helped us out,” she said, adding that it was also important to not let money be the overriding concern. “It’s your performance that is important,” Bhandare said, “Sometimes, the mindset is, ‘If I am among the eleven, I will get this much money. If I’m not, then this much.’”
Now in her sixties, Bhandare is much-respected on the circuit. Generations of aspirants have been coached by her, and many have gone on to play at state and national levels. She remembers a time when cricketer Alu Bamji organised the first women’s coaching camp at the Cricket Club of India during the 1970s. Women’s cricket was still a foreign concept then, but a number of matches were conducted between city clubs. Three decades later, Bhandare emphasised that there was no reason for women’s cricket to still lag behind. The efforts to create a pool of quality players, Paranjape added, need to begin at the school level.
While a number of educational institutions like Shardashram, St Columba and Chandrakant Patkar Academy have girls’ cricket teams, the numbers are still dismal. “As compared to over 180 schools that have cricket teams for boys, there are only 15 or 16 that support girls’ cricket,” explained Shubhangi Dalvi, a physical training teacher at the imposing St Columba Girls High School in Gamdevi. A former national-level kabaddi player, Dalvi wanted to incorporate sports to a larger extent at the school, and figured the national sport would be a good start. She started a girls’ cricket team, with the help of cricketer Madhav Paralkar, who had founded the Manoramabai Apte trophy for the under-16 girls’ team. “But today, while women’s kabaddi is now in the Olympics, cricket is nowhere close,” Dalvi said, wryly.
Students from the fifth grade up are part of the school’s cricket team, and play in annual tournaments organised by the Mumbai School Sports Association, and the Mumbai Cricket Association. Unlike boys’ cricket teams that get to compete in a string of tournaments, like Harris Shield and Giles Shield, girls are able to play for barely two months in a year. “There is much less scope for practice,” said Dalvi, “So the girls are often not at their optimum fitness level.”
Sustaining the sport is also an expensive prospect, Dalvi said. St Columba’s ground has a tarred surface, and so the school had special mats brought in to make it possible to play there. “And we lose a ball every day!” she said, laughing, “When we had started, it cost `60. Now it’s almost `150!” The meagre income that professional women’s cricket brings in discourages them from considering it as a career. “There are so many talented players, but they end up taking up other professions,” said Dalvi, “A kind of frustration sets in.”
What needs to change immediately is the number of matches organised. “More can be organised over the weekends, and schools and colleges should be involved,” said Paranjape, “The girls can also play with boys’ teams –that’s not a problem.” Logistics aside, women’s cricket will truly flourish only when it has adequate support –both from the management and spectators.
“Men’s cricket is where it is today because they have people crowding stadiums,” said Kokil, adding that women’s cricket is more about technique, rather than strength.
While Paranjape would ideally want each of her students to explore their potential, without the stress of audience interest and financial backing, practical considerations make her add a codicil. “I tell my girls to concentrate on their studies now,” she said,” Because people don’t ask you what you play, they ask you what you study.”
By Mithila Phadke on February 18 2013