February 13, 2013

The problem with women's cricket in India

Ananya Upendran
It's not played by schoolgirls, so where will the talent feed for U-19 and state cricket come from?

Walk into any school in India and you will see a group of boys playing cricket, organised or not, in the playground. Have you ever seen girls playing instead? My guess is no. Here lies the starting point for any story about Indian women's cricket.

Women's cricket has travelled a long distance in the country - from its beginning under the Women's Cricket Association of India (WCAI), when players had to pay to play tournaments, to now, when Indian girls have travel and accommodation expenses paid for, receive a match fee and a daily allowance. The game is run by the BCCI these days and that has led to many benefits, but there are still areas in which the WCAI, women cricketers will tell you, did a better job.

"Girls played many more domestic and international games, but now things have changed drastically," says one disgruntled player. "The Indian women hardly play any international matches, and the number of domestic tournaments has reduced considerably."

For women's cricket to develop and grow, the BCCI and state associations must increase participation at the grassroots level. I played state cricket for Hyderabad and I can tell you that for women's cricket, the grassroots is tough terrain.

Most boys begin playing cricket, unofficially or officially, when they are ten or 11 years old. They have the opportunity to play for their school (sometimes the school even has "inter-class" matches) or district, and soon enough get the chance to represent the state. At the school level, girls in India have practically no opportunity to play cricket.

Women's cricket in the country is simply divided into two categories, Under-19 and seniors (state/Ranji Trophy level). There are no school or club matches that help selectors pick at the U-19 level, so a player only gets to play matches if she is considered "good enough" to be selected in the state team. Most girls who graduate from U-19 make it to the senior team, but those who don't usually give up the game.

This lack of opportunity is the biggest concern for women's cricket. "If girls aren't given the chance to play more matches, our standards will never rise," says Sunitha Anand, a wicketkeeper from Hyderabad, who was part of the Indian team that won the Twenty20 Asia Cup held in China last year. "You only find out how much you have developed as a player when you play in a match. Nets can take you only so far; matches are what really count."

She says schools must be encouraged to have girls' cricket teams as well. "When more girls play, competition will increase, and as a result, standards will rise. It is only when you are competing for something that you continue to get better. When you know there is no one pushing for your place, you tend to stagnate."

For young girls who want to start playing cricket, finding a proper coach or an academy becomes the next hurdle. I know of many girls who had trouble in this regard; this when every neighbourhood in India seems to have a "cricket academy". The truth is that many academies don't accommodate girls, and therefore there are very few places where girls can be coached.

A nine-year-old who wanted to play walked into the Arshad Ayub Academy. The coaches looked at her uncertainly, saying she was too young and probably would not settle in well with the boys. She insisted, "I'm better than the boys. I'll show you. I want to play"

In 2007, three girls I know who had already represented one southern state were turned away by a coach who said he had "no time to train girls". A nine-year-old who desperately wanted to begin playing cricket walked into the Arshad Ayub Academy. The coaches looked at her uncertainly, saying she was too young and would probably not settle in well with the boys. She insisted, "I'm better than the boys. I'll show you. I want to play." Rachna Kumar, now a member of the Hyderabad Senior team, thus became one of very few girls to gain admission to such centres.

If only more coaches were willing to allow the girls to play with the boys. There would be such an improvement in the women's game, and I honestly believe more girls would begin to play.

"I have a lot of friends who want to play cricket just for fun," says Kumar. "They don't want to take it up seriously, so joining the women's academy in Gymkhana [Hyderabad] would be pointless, but then again, there is nowhere else they can go. It would really help if there were other places where girls could learn to play recreational cricket, even if they aren't serious about it."

For those girls who do end up playing for their state teams, life is not much easier. The practice facilities provided are reasonably good, but when it comes to playing practice matches, the available grounds tend to be very far away, because the centrally located grounds tend to give priority to the boys' teams. Sometimes parents have to take the day off to make sure their daughter has a safe ride to the venue.

Many of these grounds, located almost on the outskirts of the city, don't have proper toilets - if they have them at all. Some have bathrooms without doors, some without running water, others with broken commodes. There have been times when, in order to use a bathroom, players have had to walk over to a nearby shopping mall or theatre. "Girls know nothing of 'comfort breaks' - the grounds we play on train us not to take them," says Anand.

Women's cricket in India is still not a fully professional sport - meaning one can neither make a living from it nor find financial support. Match fees and the daily allowance (for a five-match tour) together probably cover the cost of a good bat. Quality gear comes at a price - approximately Rs 10,500, excluding the bat, which costs around Rs 10,000 for a good one.

Most of the boys who play for the state at junior level have sponsors who hand out free equipment. If you grow in stature and play at the Ranji Trophy level, these commercial contracts sometimes provide an income as well. Girls, on the other hand, even the ones who play for the country (let alone the state players), find it difficult to get sponsorship for their gear.

Women's cricket in India needs to grow, and for that it's important that more girls are given a chance to play in school. When a team does well and wins, interest is generated. That's exactly what has happened with women's badminton in India, thanks largely to Olympic bronze medalist Saina Nehwal. That is what happened with men's cricket after 1983.

Hosting a World Cup is great for the exposure it gives women's cricket, but more needs to change - encouraging girls to play at schools, opening up academies to girls, and ensuring that the real change for the women's game takes place, not with a World Cup every few years, but at the grassroots.

Ananya Upendran, who began playing at the age of 13, is now a member of the Hyderabad senior team