September 16, 2008

A good year for the ladies

Our correspondent tells of how the women in his family have taken to cricket with a vengeance, consigning him to non-playing status in the process

A women's match at Parker's Piece in Cambridge: 'almost a thriving sport' © Kamran Abbasi

Once upon a time I played cricket almost non-stop during the summer; both days of each weekend and almost every evening of the week playing amateur cricket's versions of Twenty20, Pro40, and declaration matches. The list of teams was endless and I earned the title of cricketing mercenary: ready to fight for any team at any moment.

When I imagined my later life, it was full of such cricket matches, with adoring family applauding streaky fours and consoling me after wicketless spells of bowling - faster in my mind's eye than the batsmen's.

This fantasy never materialised. First, cricket writing and other responsibilities changed priorities from player to observer. Second, and most unexpectedly this year, I have become a FAB, aka Fathers and Boyfriends - the male version of WAG. As a FAB I spent my summer driving to cricket matches, chauffeuring and supporting three members of my family, almost every day of the week and both days of the weekend.

The general view in the Abbasi clan is that I've had my chance and now it's time for me to step aside and let the "professionals" take over. Three Abbasis have debuted in league cricket in England's Cambridge area this year, and I haven't had a look in.

My children were doomed to cricket. Even my wife, Samantha, has loved the game. She comes from a family of cricketers, has met some of the greats of international cricket, participated enthusiastically in back-garden tournaments, and generally bemoaned her lack of opportunity as a girl and woman interested in playing cricket. How many women, for example, can claim that Dickie Bird has slept in their bed? (She wasn't in it at the time, I hasten to add.)

But when my obsession reached its height it seemed to Samantha that I was spending more time listening to Ramiz Raja and Ravi Shastri than I ever did to her. And so, in a crescendo of enthusiasm coinciding with our children's first exposure to club cricket, and retaliation for her time as a cricket widow, she began her career this year for Cambridge Ladies, her ambition set on becoming the Beefy Botham of women's cricket, albeit at an age when Sir Ian had been contemplating retirement.

After a phone call to the club and several emails to the organisers, she was in the system. There were fleeting second thoughts along the lines of: was it possible to start from almost scratch? But in a short period of time Samantha acquired whites, took ownership of my bat and rebranded it with a pink grip, picked up an England one-day cap and red cricket shades. She took up discussing finer points of technique and organising childcare during training sessions. Her attitude was simply that in a family consumed by playing or writing about cricket she might as well sail with the wind.

In a short period of time Samantha acquired whites, took ownership of my bat and rebranded it with a pink grip, picked up an England one-day cap and red cricket shades. She took up discussing finer points of technique and organising childcare during training sessions

It helps that our eldest daughter, who is 11, has started playing for the same team. Both are now able to share their first experiences of competitive cricket. I've shared them too - from the boundary - and in our now regular family net sessions.

Women's cricket, I have discovered, is almost a thriving sport. There are organised leagues, net sessions, and development teams. There are overseas professionals, a Kiwi legspinner in this instance, and stalwarts with a passion for logistics and organisation. There are disputes with umpires, rows with the opposition, and angry, bat-slapping dismissals.

All women's cricket requires is more players - and more FABs. Watching the excellence of women's football, volleyball, and softball at the Olympics confirms that women's cricket can continue to progress to a high level. It isn't a matter of lack of power or capability but a matter of how seriously a nation takes its women's sports. The excellence of Brazilian, Chinese, and American women in ball sports shows how the sexual revolution hasn't quite penetrated the UK's sporting culture. In the UK a woman keen to take up cricket would require determination to find a suitable club, and it might be some distance away. The attitude of too many men's cricket clubs is that women players aren't to be taken seriously.

Women's cricket also has its subtle, and slightly alarming, differences. There is a degree of zealous competitiveness even in development games - though that could be the Kiwi's doing. There is female bonding, mutual encouragement, and cheering of a kind that men would be unable to match. There is bad music blaring from the dressing room, and pints are sunk by batters waiting for their knock.

But these are minor quibbles. For somebody who's had his head stuck in the men's game for nearly four decades I've found the women's game a revelation, and an environment that has encouraged the sporting ambitions of two female members of my family. I never imagined that I would end up the non-cricket-playing member of my family but I have, and I'm enjoying it. There is also something unusual about watching cricket and not being expected to write about it - except on this occasion.

My highlight of this crazy upside-down FAB season was when Samantha walked off the field after her first match and said: "I finally get it. At last I understand why it's so great to play cricket and why losers like you become addicted." My passion for cricket needed no further explanation. An unexpected triumph for women's cricket and Cambridge Ladies.

Kamran Abbasi is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine