Women chart their own route
After a day's play on England's tours to Australia or New Zealand, Rachael Heyhoe-Flint would take the score sheets, go to her hotel, compose a match report and dictate it over the phone to the Daily Telegraph's office in London. Nothing out of the ordinary for a touring reporter in the 1960s and 70s. Except that Heyhoe-Flint was also England Women's captain. She knew that no publicity meant no sponsorship, and no sponsorship was bad for any sport, particularly one such as women's cricket, forever hamstrung by comparison to its male counterpart. But Heyhoe-Flint's toil bore fruit when businessman Jack Hayward helped sponsor the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1973, a couple of years before the men's event.
It has been forty years since then. The ICC-backed tenth edition of the Women's World Cup begins tomorrow in Mumbai - and later in Cuttack - when India take on West Indies under lights at the historic Brabourne Stadium. The game will be live on television. The teams are staying in a luxury landmark hotel, accompanied by a variety of support staff. Several journalists are chasing players for interviews. Forget 1973, even in the 1997 edition, held in India, the players themselves had to move the sightscreen. The world of women's cricket today is unrecognisable from Heyhoe-Flint's struggle to bring it some attention. Or is it?
'David Warner would have hit that one for six.' 'With such shortened boundaries, even I can hit more sixes.' 'Not one six so far in the game? How boring!' 'I would have stopped that four in my sleep.' These are some of the typical reactions from fans and even cricket journalists to the women's game. To one's mind, cricket has to be the only game where the women's side of the game is seen consistently through the prism of the men's version. Tennis never paid scant attention to Victoria Azarenka's Australian Open win because she didn't have to beat Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
On the eve of India's tournament opener against West Indies, Mithali Raj, India Women's captain, was asked whether any of the senior Indian male players had given inputs and what difference would it make to her if any of them turned up to watch. Imagine MS Dhoni being asked the reverse.
Raj believes there is no escaping from the "comparisons" which "are bound to happen because we play the same sport." However, she reminds it is not exactly comparing apples to apples. "People should realise that at the end of the day, it is different sexes," Raj said. "And there is one big issue about physical ability. When it comes to the mind game or the technique, I think everybody would agree that we are on par with them. [The rest] is nature. We can't really do much about it." It is something people would do well to keep in mind over the next three weeks when changing channels in disappointment after watching a few deliveries of a women's game, because it doesn't confirm to what they have to come to believe, or have been led to believe, is "entertaining cricket".
Raj says the advent of Twenty20 and the Indian Premier League has further skewed the balance against women when it comes to perceptions. "The power point has come into the picture with the IPL. But otherwise if you see the one-dayers and the Tests I am sure earlier it was more of technique. Basically it is T20 which is more entertaining and when you see those soaring sixes… with the inception of T20, things have definitely changed."
Things haven't been too much better when it comes to administration. One of only two stadiums from where matches were to be broadcast on television, Wankhede Stadium, was lost to the local association's demand of having their team play the Ranji Trophy final there. As telling as the muted opposition to and criticism of the demand was the fact that it was actually made in the first place. Whoever heard of a marquee World Cup venue being lost to a domestic final? Not in the men's game anyway.
So what do these women have to offer us that we have so far refused to warm up to? "It is always curiosity that pulls people to come and watch women's cricket and when they do, they always acknowledge the elegance of the strokeplay and the kind of effort put in by the players," Raj says.
"I must admit I have seen some of the most amazing shots played by the West Indies players. I am sure you will get to see that during the tournament. They definitely match the men's standard."
"Deandra Dottin [who holds the record for the fastest T20I hundred, across the men's and women's games] would definitely clear the boundary," adds Charlotte Edwards, the England Women captain.
Since most of them can't resort to power like the men do, timing, and the resulting elegance, is a given in the women's game. Raj is one of the best examples of grace with a bat in hand. Because it is not easy to blast your way out of trouble, most women batsmen have very fine techniques. There is also cultured hitting that is making its way into the women's game, with the likes of Australia and England leading the way. Women spinners still actually flight the ball generously in one-dayers, and they are met with dancing batsmen who drive such deliveries through the covers with high elbows and full followthroughs. The fielders sprint and dive as well as their bodies allow them to.
Starting tomorrow, the cricketing world has another chance to watch all this, and appreciate it for what it is, women playing international cricket. And leave the comparisons with the men out.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo