December 8, 2013

What if Sachin had been a girl?

Young and highly talented female cricketers are forced to quit the game before they reach the height of their powers. Is that at all fair?

Holly Colvin: one of England's biggest assets before she chose to take a break from the game © Associated Press

It's November 15, 2013. It is the day of Sachin Tendulkar's last Test innings. The coverage is overwhelming. Sachin makes 74, and the crowd is overjoyed; some of them are crying. They'll remember this day forever. We'll remember it too. Tributes are flooding in. The event cannot go unnoticed.

In amongst it all comes a straight-to-the-point press release from the ECB: Holly Colvin, England's left-arm spinner and one of the team's biggest assets, will be unavailable for the women's Ashes in Australia and the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh. She is taking a break from the game, to pursue a career outside cricket.

She is 24 years old.

The ECB's press release drops under the radar, almost unobserved. Colvin's break from cricket cannot compete with the Little Master's last journey back to the pavilion. (Can anything?)

That is the way it goes. Because Sachin has been worshipped as a demi-god for the last 24 years, and Colvin is merely a female cricketer. To illustrate the point: Sachin's last Test innings was played at his home ground, the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, to a sell-out crowd of 45,000. Others, who did not get lucky in the ticket lottery, lined the streets outside the ground. The last time Colvin was scheduled to play in a match at the Wankhede - during the women's World Cup, back in February - the match was moved at the last minute to make way for a Ranji Trophy match featuring Sachin and his Mumbai team-mates.

There are parallels between the two careers, perhaps. It was Sachin's brilliance at such a young age that initially caught the attention of the cricketing world. His international debut at age 16, against Pakistan in Karachi, is the stuff of legend. And if young brilliance is what excites cricket fans, Colvin's 2005 debut should get a mention too - less well-known, but no less remarkable for all that. Rumour has it that she was drafted into the England side at the last minute, by virtue of turning up to help out at a net session. England were playing Australia; Colvin took three wickets in her first Test match, and narrowly missed out on a hat-trick. England drew the match, and went on to win the Ashes for the first time in 42 years. She was only 15 at the time.

Sachin has been the cornerstone of the most successful period of Indian cricket of all time. Colvin, too, has been a cornerstone of possibly the most successful England women's team ever, a side that in 2009 won the Ashes, the World Twenty20 and the 50-over World Cup in the course of just five months. Both players have consistently been at the top or near the top of the ICC's player rankings in their respective arts.

Comparisons can only go so far, of course. Sachin's debut may be the stuff of legend, but Colvin's is largely forgotten. In the endless tributes to Sachin we have read in the last few weeks, his best innings are endlessly talked about, picked over, memorialised. Many will be unfamiliar with Colvin's best performances. Women's cricket, we all know, does not compare with men's when it comes to that sort of coverage.

In any case, career comparisons are ridiculous, absurd, when it comes to Sachin. What am I thinking? He has no parallels with any cricketer. The statistics speak for themselves. He has averaged more than 50 for the last 18 years. He has amassed 15,921 Test runs over the course of his career, yards ahead of anyone else. And of course there are those 100 centuries: a record that will last and last and last.

But think about this for a second: Sachin has played in a total of 200 Tests and 463 ODIs. Since Colvin made her debut in August 2005, he played in 77 Tests and 115 ODIs. In that same time period, Colvin has played in just five Tests and 72 ODIs. The men's international cricket calendar, these days, is jam-packed. Without such a calendar, would even the exceptional talent of Sachin have seen such records broken?

The women's calendar is far from jam-packed.

And think about this, too: Sachin has been playing international cricket for 24 years. "In sporting terms", according to Gideon Haigh, "almost a geological epoch". He is 40 years old. He has given up the game he loves on his terms. He has done it because his talent is fading with age, and he knows it; he has done it because the time is right.

Colvin's international career has, to date, lasted just eight years. She is 24 years old. She is giving up the game she loves - albeit, she says and we hope, temporarily - because she has to think about a future beyond cricket. She has just had the series of her career in the Caribbean, taking 4 for 17 to sweep England to victory in the third ODI, and to their first away-series victory against West Indies. She would have been an automatic selection for the Ashes, and the World Twenty20, and beyond. She is at her peak as an athlete, and as a cricketer. Her talent shows no sign of fading.

Tendulkar is a multi-millionaire, estimated fortune: $160,000,000. Since 1995 he has been the richest cricketer in the world. Colvin's international career has brought almost no financial rewards, and is unlikely to bring any. Why else is it that she is having to take a break from cricket, aged just 24, to pursue other career options?

Cricket has been Tendulkar's livelihood since he was old enough to worry about it. Women's cricket is not a job.

Colvin said in the ECB press release: "There is still much that I want to achieve in international cricket". Is there anything left for Sachin to achieve? He walks away from the game having fulfilled his talent, and then some. Colvin's career break comes at a time when she has barely had the chance to showcase hers.

Is all this fair?

Is it?

According to biological science, gender is determined at conception by the presence of an X or Y chromosome in the sperm. It is an entirely random process.

Here's what I couldn't help thinking when I read that press release: if Holly Colvin was a man, then this absence from cricket would be completely unnecessary.

And then, the converse of this. Sachin's player profile on ESPNcricinfo describes him as "the most complete batsman of his time, the most prolific run-maker of all time, and arguably the biggest cricket icon the game has ever known". Whisper it, now, because it's practically sacrilegious to even say it out loud...

But what if he'd been a girl?

Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. She tweets here