Women who keep the score ticking
It is a cold December morning and Saurashtra have made a mess of the first session of their final, must-win, Ranji Trophy group game against Madhya Pradesh. They are four down for about 90-odd, but opener Sheldon Jackson gives the home side their first joy as he reaches his fifty. "Arre waah Seldooon, su vaat chhe (roughly, well done Sheldon, way to go)," shouts a voice in Gujarati. It can't belong to any of Jackson's team-mates, for it is a female voice.
Saurashtra are not fortunate enough to have female fans cheering for them early on a Saturday at their stadium 12 km outside Rajkot. The voice belongs to Sejal Dave-Mehta, who has allowed herself an instant's break to acknowledge Jackson's effort. An instant is all she can afford; she has to make sure she does not miss the next ball. She also has to keep another pause to the minimum, the one between Bollywood songs that are blaring out from her laptop. You see, the action can never stop in the Rajkot scorers' box. It isn't allowed to, by the women who man it.
"They have learnt it from me, so they will do the same things," says a beaming Hemali Desai. Sitting alongside, Dave-Mehta bursts into laughter at Desai's words. Seeing the two, scoring appears miles away from the dreary, dispassionate, serious task it seems to be. For Desai, scoring has been passion as well as fun for close to two decades. For Dave-Mehta, who is in her mid-twenties, it has been the same for close to a decade. They are the only active, BCCI-certified women online scorers in the country at the moment.
"I have started this practice of playing music in the scorers' area," Desai says. "At times, four-day matches can get very boring with no chance of a result. I have never felt the music to be a disturbance.
"I have seen people scoring very seriously and wonder what is happening," Desai says. "As long as it was only manual, there remained a chance of an error. Nowadays with online scoring, there is no chance to make a mistake with laptops and technology and what not. Then what is the point of taking it so seriously? You should enjoy it. Whatever job you do you should enjoy it."
Desai is not sitting on some lush outfield watching a game to be moved into romanticising her profession. It is late evening in the cramped office of the Saurashtra Cricket Association on the seventh floor of a Rajkot commercial building. Desai has already been working the whole day. She was working until after midnight last night. And she will be here at least until midnight again. It is the first evening of the New Year, and there are just ten days left for the India-England ODI, to be played at the Saurashtra Cricket Association's new stadium. Cash generated from ticket sales has to be brought from the stadium counter to the office and accounted for, accreditation cards for journalists have to be readied, passes have to be sorted. All hands are needed on deck. Desai is around, as always.
She is also coach and selector of the Saurashtra women's team and used to play as a wicketkeeper, before competition at state level with players from the three associations in Gujarat made her quit. Scoring just happened. "I have played for West Zone Under-19 and in the sub-junior nationals," Desai says. "Then a state-level scoring exam was held. I decided to take it, just to understand what it was all about. I cleared it and was given the opportunity to score games at the SCA. This was in 1994. I quit playing in 1995, took up scoring and have made a career out of it.
"Two women had cleared the BCCI scorers' exam in 1997, I and the another one from Mumbai. She quit scoring soon, and I was the only one till around 2005. Then Sejal cleared the exam. In 2008, when online scoring began, I was the first female scorer to do it."
A predictable reaction greeted Desai when she started. "People used to feel, 'what is a woman doing at the ground.' They used to go, 'A woman and scoring!' Then everyone got used to it. I did not have much idea about scoring when I began. I was apprehensive whether I would be able to do it. But then I started enjoying it and had no issues doing it. And then I felt that this was the right field for me."
Passion without backing can so easily end up as frustration and may even wither away, but Desai's family and the SCA stood by her. "She started it all," says Niranjan Shah, the SCA secretary. "We were there to provide support and now she has taken it much forward."
It is harder to find similar encouragement from families in traditional Gujarat, Desai says. "A girl is married off here at an early age. Still we try and persuade capable girls to continue playing. There are some women in our team who are married. One of our coaches is married. Her husband is supporting her, which is why she is able to do it."
There is another example in the scoring team. Dave-Mehta got married recently, and she is delighted to have found a husband who has no issues with her line of work. "Nowadays people have become more understanding and trends are changing," Desai says. "But when such an incident like the recent one in Delhi happens, parents are scared to send their girls out. But with parental and association support, there is no problem.
"We get so much support from the SCA that we have never faced any issue. It takes just one phone call to get things arranged. I have been to other states for scoring, and scorers do not have the facility of a car pick-up and drop. Here, they even drop us till our homes if we request them to." Desai's voice cracks with emotion as she says this, underlining how much difference a little thoughtfulness from those in charge can make.
Having seen more women take up scoring - seven from Mumbai cleared the BCCI's manual scoring examination at a seminar for women conducted by Desai - she speaks like the pioneer she is. "I wanted women to come into this field. Right now it is dominated by men. I want everyone to know that even women can do this job. I never feel that if more women come, I won't get matches. No one is going to get more than he is destined to."
All the while, Dave-Mehta sits next to Desai, her actions limited only to laugh at a joke here and nod at a sage statement there. Probably because of her young age, her utterances about her profession aren't as lofty as Desai's. A national-level field-hockey player, Dave-Mehta views scoring as a means to be close to the cricket and the domestic season, in jest, as akin to a vacation from the routine of married life.
Desai, for whom the game has been her life, is single. "I have had the full support of my parents. I need a life partner who can understand me and my career can also go on. It will happen." Meanwhile, there is scoring, coaching, selecting, inspiring, enjoying and much more to be done yet.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo