This one's for the girls
There is not even a twitch as the nick flies past, the slip fielder immobile. Tall, considerably resolute, utterly still: not unlike those famous Godrej steel cupboards that hold family jewels in many an Indian household. The bowler's fury is both heard and felt. "Oye!" comes the shout, "First slip main khadi ho, slip ka kaam toh karo! (You're standing at first slip, at least do the work of a slip fielder)"
It is an indignant voice, ringing out clean, at a high, youthful pitch. It comes from a girl who turns 16 in July. She is not involved in a match of any kind. This is a skills work exercise, under the lofty gaze of the Trans-Himalayan Dhauladhar range and the closer scrutiny of her coach. The session has already extended beyond its normal duration, but for some, the intensity is on full beam.
Like for Prachi Chauhan, the bowler who had a go at the lone slip. She is one of 27 girls who turn up for training and practice all year round at India's first residential academy for women cricketers. She is from Shimla and lives at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) ground in Dharamsala, she says, to silence talk she heard as she grew up playing outdoors with boys. "Ghar pe jaa ke badminton seekho. (Go home and learn to play badminton)", or, to her parents: "Ghar ka kaam sikhao. (Teach her housework)" Chauhan is an allrounder, a fan of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and bowls outswingers. "Well, twice in every over sometimes, an inswinger slips in by itself."
They are an unusual bunch in an unusual place. The youngest is ten years old, picked for the fundamentals coaches spotted in trials: a strong shoulder, a natural sense of timing and endurance that helps her keep pace with the older girls in hour-long runs around the ground. There are girls from the eastern high-altitude, fruit-growing districts of Kinnaur, surrounded by the mountain ranges bordering Tibet. From Una, from Kullu, from Shimla. They turn up at the academy, already strong and tough, having worked in the family orchards, growing up carrying crates of the state's famous apples and apricots. These are daughters of farmers, government workers, soldiers, and what brings them together is cricket, along with what it means and what it offers. Coach Pawan Sen, a former Himachal Pradesh Ranji player, says the girls "pick up things quickly, I think they work out things more seriously."
A year after the HPCA initiative, the Andhra Cricket Association inaugurated its women's residential academy in September 2010 housed at the JKC College in Guntur. Early in 2012, former White Fern Maria Fahey was brought in as head of its women's wing. The Dharamsala academy was originally an experiment born of limited opportunities available for girls to play cricket in a state where available flat land is scarce and slopes are steep.
Now in its sixth year, the HPCA women's academy has sent the first cricketer from the state, Sushma Verma, into the Indian women's team. Hailing from Shimla, Verma was an all-round athlete, having played hockey, volleyball and handball, but took to cricket like an obsessive and was part of the academy's first batch. Sen says, "Normally very few parents will think of sending their girls away to play cricket. After Sushma made it, more have come. They see us as a place from where their daughters can reach the Indian team."
Cricket's growing allure in Himachal Pradesh is easily explained by Veena Pandey. Pandey, the girls' trainer, also lives on site as a warden of the girls hostel, or as she calls herself, "all-round in-charge". A former volleyball international for India, Pandey has memories of travelling rough with her team to tournaments, sleeping 12 to a room on mattresses on the floor. She encourages the HPCA girls to play other sports in the schools they attend nearby, and experience cricket's difference. "I tell them to look at other games, see what girls face elsewhere." Every morning, summer or winter, the girls must turn up at 5:40am for assembly. If they moan, Pandey tells them that had they played volleyball, it would have been more than an hour earlier.
The girls' cricketing costs are covered by the HPCA, which spends between Rs 40-45 lakhs a year to run the academy, according to HPCA secretary Vishal Marwaha. The girls' school fees are covered by their parents - in order to ensure that they stay in touch both with their daughters and the schools they go to. The academy uses facilities all over HPCA ground - indoor nets, the gym, and vast dressing rooms with lounge chairs. The girls' dormitories - eight to ten in a room - are housed in an arc on the eastern side of the ground and the girls live there until the age of 19, after which they are housed in Dharamsala town.
When the academy was founded in 2009, it was first based in Kangra town at a multi-sport venue for two years. After the HPCA held a trial for women cricketers in 2006 all over the state, Anurag Thakur, HPCA president and now BCCI secretary, says they found themselves in an "unprecedented" situation. Girls they had picked from distant parts of the state wanted to stay behind and play. "There was no hostel, no facility, no cricket academy." The girls were told to return home and wait till some infrastructure could be created. "Women's cricket for Himachal is new," says Thakur. "We don't have enough facilities at the district level where they can go and play with the boys. So the best thing was to create infrastructure at one place where they can live, be comfortable, play cricket and adopt it as a career."
Himachal Pradesh's women's team takes part in all three women's tournaments run by the BCCI - the national women's 50-over tournament, the national T20 tournament, and the Under-19 50-over tournament. They were runners-up in the under-19 event in 2011, and the seniors have made the quarter-finals in both the T20 and the 50-over tournament, their players selected for zonal cricket camps; it was at one of those, in Lahli, that Chauhan told a BCCI official asking for feedback, that the girls needed an U-22 or U-23 event as well. She says, "More matches should be there for that age group. It is not like we can go straight from U-19s and compete with Jhulan [Goswami, a fast bowler in the Indian team]. That's all I said."
Pandey laughs. Assumptions about the shyness of country girls may well be true in some parts. Once the training is done, Pandey works with academy doctor Shalu Saini on off-field duties. "The girls come to us very young. Sometimes you're teaching them how to hold a spoon. We have a class in hygiene.
"They often cry at night when they miss home, miss their mom's cooking. It takes time." (The ten-year-old, she says, was sad for only a couple of days and then got stuck in.) Yet speak to them as a group and the shyness flies into Himalayan air.
Should Thakur land up at meal time on a surprise visit, they may him give their honest opinion about the food. When the academy was moving into the HPCA stadium in 2011, they told the boss it was taking too long for individual cupboards to be moved into the dorm room.
One of the first announcements from the new BCCI regime was a proposal to put the top women's cricketers under contracts. Thakur says the BCCI needs to "look at women's cricket at par with men's cricket to an extent". Cricket may be a "rage in India," but he admits, "as far as facilities for women are concerned, we are lagging behind. Our performance is not yet at par with other cricket nations like Australia, England. This is one area where we can achieve a lot."
As BCCI secretary, Thakur is not about to emphatically state that his association's academy has become a mandatory template to develop women's cricket in the rest of the country. What he does offer is this: "I think many associations have done well in women's cricket, and others may take a hint or example from them and do well from there." (The idea of there being many state associations outside of a tiny handful that have done well by women's cricket will no doubt amuse the women.) Yet rather than use the lack of widespread cricketing infrastructure as an excuse to cling to, a women's academy offers a solution that can be considered. At least to those state associations with good intentions.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo