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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Masood on December 10, 2013, 11:10 GMT

    Fact that Holly was drafted into the England cricket team in 2005 because she happened to be there helping out at a net session - this is exactly where the problem lies. Is women's cricket at such a dismay state?

  • fahad on December 10, 2013, 3:23 GMT

    @author:you should come out of your feminist shell and enjoy the game irrespective of the doubt women must also have the same opportunities what men enjoy but no one can deny the fact that difference do exist among genders.whether its physical,psychological or emotional.i dont have to go in to this.I have always seen you doing male bashing time and time again and do not seem to be fan of the game on whole.just observe the game from your bigotry point of view.

  • Dummy4 on December 9, 2013, 23:44 GMT

    Instead of cricket God, he would have been cricket Goddess....LOL

  • Dummy4 on December 9, 2013, 16:43 GMT

    Fundamentally, what matters is that women enjoy watching cricket less often than men. Women's tennis is strong because tens of millions of ladies who play socially and constitute a natural fan base. This brings in money, talent and then draws in male fans in a virtuous circle. Women's cricket has none of this - This is the most pertinent explanation IMO. Until women start watching women's cricket and feel more drawn to it than men's cricket,there's very little scope for things to change.

  • Saurabh on December 9, 2013, 12:11 GMT

    Wow! The Amazing question? It never picks up my mind before. Thank u to let us realize the problem.

  • Adam on December 9, 2013, 11:33 GMT

    I'm shocked that there isn't enough money in women's international cricket for it to be a viable career. We really must do something about this. Women's cricket is fantastic and extremely watchable.

  • Dummy4 on December 9, 2013, 10:51 GMT

    Fundamentally, what matters is that women enjoy watching cricket less often than men. Women's tennis is strong because tens of millions of ladies who play socially and constitute a natural fan base. This brings in money, talent and then draws in male fans in a virtuous circle. Women's cricket has none of this. I am not sure if the situation can be fixed although schools can stop making it worse. Mine had a boys cricket team and a girl's t-ball team. T-ball is a game I had never heard of until our teachers showed it to us.

    Perhaps the subcontinent will eventually save us. Organise a picnic in England and it will be wise to copy the t-balling schoolteachers and offer a game of (charmingly slapstick) rounders; cricket - no matter how slapstick - might scare away the women. But at a Sri-Lankan picnic the only game is cricket - even though you play with a tennis ball.

  • Dummy4 on December 9, 2013, 0:35 GMT

    Please answers me why male models get paid less than female models? That's the same reason Holly Colvin has to pursue a career outside cricket. You can't force people to pay and watch something which lacks quality, and they are not interested.2) Cricket is not an easy sports, gender difference makes a noticeable difference. Cathryn Fitzpatrick, a former Australian women cricket was recognized as the world's fastest women pace bowler, but her maximum speed was 125 km/h! Even Virat Kohli only as a bowler could make a place in any womens team ( if you ever watched his bowling, you would know hat I mean) 3) Even men's Cricket are not in a healthy state in some countries. For example, recent test match between WI and NZ, it wasn't televised in West Indies. Again last year test match between SA vs NZ, same result,they didn't televised those matches in South Africa either.NZ men cricket is way more professional than all women cricket teams combined , but still they are not in good shape.

  • Jon on December 8, 2013, 23:05 GMT

    Unfortunately and this is not due to sexism or anything else but women's cricket can be very dull. Viewing figures and media publicity are reflective of what the public want. Genuinely people want to be entertained by really quick bowling. The fear factor that a quick bowler brings to the script brings out a "gladitorial' quality that human nature loves to see. Crowds love to see a batsmen having to face up to genuine pace and putting his body on the line for country or club. The pace of the bowling in women's cricket is the major thing holding the game back as you never see the genuine fear factor that makes the game worth watching. I am not sure how you address this issue as biologically it will be difficult for female bowlers to ever match the pace of their male counterparts. I am all for female sport and am glad to see improvements in the game of cricket but it is always going to struggle for attention when pitted against the men.

  • Murray on December 8, 2013, 12:08 GMT

    Here in Australia the biggest sport for women is netball - I have never seen a men's team play netball. During an Olympics once it struck me about women's sport. Why is women's gymnastics popular ? ..........Because they do different apparatus from men's gymnastics. Why don't women run different distances to men in track, throw different weight objects in field, or swim in a different length pool so the direct comparison is not so damning ? With those thoughts in mind, why do women play cricket on a pitch the same length as men play on ? Why are the bats the same size and shape ? The ball the same size and weight etc ? (think baseball/softball) I believe lack of differentiation from men's sport is the single reason women's sport generally doesn't have huge followings. As for being forced to retire in mid 20's because needed a career, it happened to many men cricketers up until the late 1970's, when men's international cricket had only been contested for a bit over 100 years.