August 14, 2014

Asian Games a bus missed for Indian women's cricket

Being at the event could have done much to raise the profile of the women's game in India, but the BCCI has seen fit to not send a team

The women's team is the biggest victim of the BCCI's aversion to multi-discipline tournaments © Andy Campbell/UTPMEDIA

In just over a month from now India's contingent will march out into a full stadium at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in the South Korean city of Incheon. Shooters, wrestlers, boxers, hockey players, swimmers and athletes, all aspiring to that cherished medal, the moment that justifies the intense toil and sweat required in its pursuit.

No Indian cricketer will be part of the contingent, though. India is the only Test country from the continent that will be unrepresented at the games. Pakistan isn't sending a men's team but their women's team will be participating. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are sending teams for both the men's and women's competitions.

Cricket will be making its second consecutive appearance at the Asian games and India - to no one's surprise really - has yet again spurned the opportunity to send teams. The BCCI hasn't felt it necessary to issue a statement and there has been little outcry in the Indian media. Everyone understands this is a fait accompli; Indian cricket will maintain its aversion to multi-discipline tournaments.

To be fair to the BCCI, its position on this issue has stayed consistent over the last few years. It began with a refusal to accept a proposal from the Indian Olympic Association to include cricket in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. A few months later, the board refused to send teams to the Asian Games in which cricket made its debut, in the Chinese city of Guangzhou.

That position, if anything, is now firmly set in stone with the BCCI leading the opposition to Olympic participation, at the annual ICC conference earlier this year. Pleas from senior voices in the Indian Olympic movement for a rethink have fallen on deaf ears, and one-time supporters of the cause such as Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist appear to have fallen silent. Cricket at the Olympic games is an idea whose time has gone.

While the men's game in India rumbles along merrily and an Asian Games medal is unlikely to mean much to either India's superstar cricketers or officials, what possible reason could exist to deny the women's team a shot? The issue of their participation wasn't so much as discussed within the BCCI, so if a contrarian view does exist, it didn't find a forum to be heard.

Once their short series against England ends, India's women's team returns home to sit around and twiddle their thumbs as counterparts from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and even some fringe nations, battle for medals. It won't be an unfamiliar feeling, though. In 2010 the BCCI's refusal to let its women's team participate allowed Pakistan to win a historic gold medal. India's women, vastly superior to the Pakistan team at the time, were left to rue what might have been. They grumbled in private but fear of the consequences of speaking out meant most stayed silent.

For little girls around the country right now, there is no reward and certainly no recognition to be had in playing cricket. The Asian Games could have been a platform to script a happy story

Several commentators have argued that cricket must keep its distance from multi-discipline events as the sport has little connection with the Olympic movement. But while the high-profile men's game can keep the Olympics and the like at arm's length and continue to flourish, can the same be said of the women's game? Would Indian women's cricket not benefit from the team's presence at an event of widespread interest? Would it not help raise the profile of what is essentially a small sport?

Look carefully at the women's game in India in particular. Since it came under the BCCI's wing in 2006, women's cricket in India has regressed dramatically. As pointed by Raf Nicholson in this insightful piece, India were knocked out of the last World Cup on their home turf in the group stages, have slipped to seventh in the rankings, and are playing their first Test in eight years at the moment. Former captains Diana Edulji and Anjum Chopra have voiced concerns about the lack of international exposure and the apathy of the BCCI towards the women's game.

The Asian Games were a golden opportunity at profile-building. With the eyes of the media focused on the event, medal winners inevitably capture the national imagination. Look no further than the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where the likes of young shooters Malaika Goel, Apurvi Chandela and Rahi Sarnobat, squash players Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa, wrestler Vinesh Phogat, and badminton stars Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa among others were celebrated for sparkling medal-winning performances. These feats bring athletes corporate sponsorship and substantial financial rewards from the state and central governments and private benefactors, and unquestionably create an enthusiasm for the sports they play.

Over the last decade or so, women's sports in India have gained enormously from success at these multi-discipline events. Saina Nehwal's run to the quarter-final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a cherubic teenager marked a breakthrough moment in her career and gave badminton a significantly higher profile in India. Sania Mirza's eight medals, including a gold, across Commonwealth and Asian Games since 2006 have ensured she remains one of India's most followed athletes. MC Mary Kom's boxing bronze at the London Olympics in 2012 was a historic moment in Indian sport.

Contrast this with women's cricket. Draw up a list of India's top sportswomen and it's unlikely the captain, Mithali Raj, or star bowler Jhulan Goswami will find a place on it. Quite simply, they aren't seen enough playing on television or read about enough in newspapers. They are on the sidelines of women's sport in India and being edged out further as counterparts from shooting, wrestling, boxing, archery, squash and badminton bask in the limelight.

This imbalance could have been corrected to a certain degree by showing up at the Asian Games. In 2002, the Indian women's hockey team won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester against the odds. The afterglow of that success was to last for several years and even led to the making of an iconic film, Chak De India, starring the reigning superstar of the Indian movie industry, Shah Rukh Khan.

The cynical among us may be amused by that reference but only the foolish would deny the potential knock-on impact similar success can have on women's cricket. For little girls around the country right now, there is no reward and certainly no recognition to be had in playing cricket.

The Asian Games could have been a platform to script a happy story - one that thrilled and inspired. Alas, the dream has been crushed before it could take shape.

Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75