A tournament that had to be got out of the way
A day before the Women's World Cup final, the Oval Maidan in south Mumbai was the venue of tens of usual weekend cricket games. Among the hundreds of boys and men, close to the walkway that cuts through the central part of the ground, was a group of girls playing underarm cricket. They were colleagues preparing for an office tournament, and clearly most of them were beginners. Being the only women in a sea of men, they did draw a few curious onlookers. Seeing their struggles to put bat to ball, one person remarked sarcastically in Hindi, "Ye log kya khelengey? [How will they play?]"
This attitude of conservative, patriarchal India was one of the many barriers the Women's World Cup came up against during its three-week duration in the country's commercial capital. When you doubt the ability of women to play cricket, you can't possibly be inclined to bother about a World Cup being played at the Brabourne Stadium, a five-minute walk from Oval Maidan.
Not that the host board, the BCCI, and the owner of the tournament, the ICC, were particularly bothered about the near-empty stadium. Even if you walked past the Cricket Club of India, you would be forgiven if you didn't realise it was the premier venue of the World Cup. There was a lone, unimaginative signboard with a few details of the event just above the boundary wall. Even if you had spotted it - and it would have taken a rather keen eye to - you might as well have been reading the technical details of the latest road repairs tender from the local public works department.
Not, it must be said, that the women of the city themselves were particularly interested. Once the IPL starts in April, though, they will be attending in large numbers, ready to scream out the names of "star" players, Indian and foreign, because the yelling DJ at the ground will order them to. As, it must be said, will the men.
In September 2012, large cutouts of players greeted arriving travellers in the immigration area of Colombo's Bandaranaike airport. They were screaming out that the World Twenty20 was in town. There were similar cutouts at major traffic junctions in the city. In Mumbai, there was absolutely nothing of that sort. One understands public advertising space in Mumbai is expensive, but when you have decided to host the tournament in a busy city like Mumbai, and not in some smaller, more curious place, where it would be easier to attract people, you need to realise you can't get publicity at the rates prevalent in Cuttack.
And sorry, "social media buzz" alone just does not work. The real world is still brick-and-mortar, and in the real world, the organisers were found short of putting their money where ostensibly their heart is - in developing and promoting women's cricket.
An ex-colleague at ESPNcricinfo, a man who still covers the odd cricket story, had no clue there was a women's World Cup on, let alone that some of the games were being played at two grounds in the suburb of Bandra, where he lives.
Considered to be India's most woman-friendly city and also the historical heartland of Indian cricket, Mumbai certainly let women's cricket down.
Of course, India's early exit further condemned the tournament to indifference, but even for games involving the hosts, only the upper tier of Brabourne Stadium's North Stand was close to being full. If that is your idea of tremendous response, yes, there was tremendous response to India's matches.
How expensive would it have been to have a few enthusiastic volunteers stand at Churchgate, the suburban railway terminus nearby, which hundreds of thousands pass through daily, with placards, handouts, what have you, to let people know there was a World Cup on, a five-minute walk away? How expensive would it have been to replicate that in Fort, Nariman Point, Ballard Pier, commercial districts nearby, frequented by thousands of office-goers? How expensive would it have been to replicate that at other high-traffic spots across the city?
How expensive would it have been to have some sort of music being played inside the ground to create some semblance of an atmosphere? How expensive would it have been to have the national anthems played for all games, instead of only for the final?
It appears that more than being short of money, the ICC was short of intent and will.
Of course, the BCCI, as always, had to be a step ahead of the ICC. The tournament was shunted out of Wankhede Stadium because the Mumbai Cricket Association wanted to stage the Ranji Trophy final there. The board that runs the most lucrative T20 league in the world says "it is not all about the money" when it comes to paying its women cricketers better than mere peanuts. Providing facilities at its academies and grounds to the women is talked about not as a prerequisite but a handout.
Publicity by way of media interviews costs nothing, though, but the BCCI forbade those for the Indian team, barring the mandatory player appearances at press conferences. The official line was that, apparently, there were so many interview requests from mediapersons that the India players would not have had time to practise and prepare for their games. Australian players and support staff gave interviews stretching up to half an hour each. Their preparation did not seem to be hampered much. They won the World Cup. Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami are greats of the women's game but how will an already indifferent public learn more about them if they are not allowed to speak at a time when they are most likely to draw some attention?
There is no surety crowds would have filled stadiums if the ICC had undertaken an outdoor advertising blitz. India has little sporting culture and most of what masquerades as cricket culture is, in fact, star worship of the male players. But at least it wouldn't have felt like a tournament that had to be got out of the way.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo