March 4, 2014

The gender question

What exactly were girls and women doing in the '70s and '80s when all of us Indian men and boys were obsessed with cricket?

It took a while for women in India to be hooked to cricket © AFP

Looking back at the 1970s and early 1980s, I am now struck by what academics might call the "gender question" when it came to cricket, especially in India. What exactly were girls and women doing when all of us men and boys obsessed about cricket? Thinking back, here is a scattershot of vignettes that I recall.

Girls up to a certain age would get roped into games when there was a serious shortage of manpower (literally). My younger sister, for instance, served as a back stop when my older brother and I were confined to playing within the yard at home. We took fairly merciless advantage of her eagerness to please and enlisted her to do all the thankless tasks. At the age of seven (or maybe earlier) she wised up and went off to pursue saner and less exploitative pursuits.

All too many of the costs of cricket were externalised onto women. My brother would disappear for hours over the weekends while my mom wondered whether he had eaten anything at all and when he might turn up unannounced looking for a full meal. My stuttering efforts to make a cricketer out of my very limited skill set entailed her having to wake up at 5am so that I could leave the house by 6 to make cricket practice by 7 - with breakfast inside me and a packed lunch inside my school box. Talk about a truly thankless and unrewarded task!

While the Indian men's team did its crash-and-burn-interrupted-by-occasional-wins routine, the women's team seemed a model of consistency. Shanta Rangaswamy, the tall and elegant captain, did everything - bat, bowl, field, and lead - with a calm excellence. Sudha Shah never seemed to fail with the bat, and Diana Edulji was always among the wickets. The bustling wicketkeeper Fowzieh Khalili was also an attacking batsman. As with the men, the women's team seemed small and underfed in comparison to their strapping counterparts from other countries - and yet they held their own to a greater degree than the men did, at least in my memory. In retrospect, and not for the first time, women's cricket got short shrift for reasons other than merit.

As long as cricket was either watched live or heard on the radio, most Indian women seemed indifferent to it. Things changed dramatically with the advent of live television. Firstly, back then Doordarshan was the only show in town and when cricket was on TV there was nothing else to watch, as there were no other channels. This gave new meaning to the phrase "a captive audience", and women were initiated into the game whether or not they desired it. Second, with the advent of one-day cricket, coloured clothing and all the rest of the tamasha, the game also became more of a spectacle. It wasn't quite Bollywood but close enough to serve as a substitute.

Tours to or from Pakistan set off interesting dynamics within the cloisters of the Indian middle class. Cricket viewing on TV was still a bit of a community event as the few homes with a set drew neighbours from near and far during matches. Tens of people would be packed into tiny drawing rooms, with the elders sitting on the sofas, the kids on the floor right beneath the set, and the women flitting in and out of the margins as the kitchen pretty much had to be run around the clock.

The sight of a sweaty Imran Khan, shirt open a good ways down to the waist, loping in to bowl in his snug flannels set many hearts racing. I can't vouch for this but when Mr Khan was on screen, there certainly seemed to be more women watching raptly. Which no doubt left most Indian men chagrined - especially since Imran beat us pretty handily at bowling, batting and looks. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of it all from a male point of view was the relative equanimity with which women handled defeat in cricket. Once the match was over, they just got back to their busy lives while the men engaged in the post-mortems of self-hate and angst that are unique to the nationalist sports fan (is there another kind?).

With the slightly improved gender equalisation of cricket watching in India, I fear now the women have become way more nationalist than they were. Going by the reactions shown on TV and in the comments sections of cricket blogs (still an overwhelmingly male domain I should add) it's pretty obvious that one-eyed partisanship is not exclusively a male weakness.

For me, the definitive sign (one that reads "You've come a long way, baby") that Indian women had truly arrived in the world of the cricketing cognoscenti came about two decades ago. I had left India soon after our World Cup triumph in the summer of 1983 and lost close touch with the game as I made a life in the United States. ESPNcricinfo had yet to make its appearance, streaming live cricket was nowhere on the horizon, telephone calls home were forbiddingly expensive on my graduate-school stipend, and finding out about the scores two weeks after a match ended, through a newspaper in the university's library basement, just didn't cut it.

So I had no idea how far cricket had seeped into the minds of Indian women. One summer in the mid-1990s I was back in my home town, Chennai, lazing on the couch and watching a Test match involving India and England. My mother and father were watching as well. Having taken a first-innings lead, the Indians were struggling to bowl the English out quickly to chase down a target - and things were drifting away from us. Suddenly my mother said, "This captain is useless. He should switch Kumble to the other end," and walked off to attend to something in the kitchen. The stunned silence that enveloped the room in her wake spoke more eloquently than anything either my father or I might have said.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu