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More power to Diana Edulji

Diana Edulji: "I was always passionate for sports. It was very important for me. I always want sports to be in the limelight" AFP

Diana Edulji tells a story about her job as a sports officer with Western Railway.

Indian Railways, historically great patrons of Indian sport, can hire as many as 1200 men and women every year under their sports quota in order to field athletes in 30 sports, across several levels, from district to international. Usually not even half of that annual quota is filled. As the end of one particular financial year approached, with the allotment about to lapse, Edulji had her request concerning 19 signings blocked repeatedly by the Railways Sports Control Board (RSCB). Edulji, who had spent more than a decade in the Railways sports hiring business, threw herself into every hoop-jumping exercise that was needed, including procuring a letter from a Rajya Sabha member called Sachin Tendulkar. None of which seemed to work.

On the morning of the final day of the financial year, Edulji wangled an appointment with the RSCB president. The number was haggled from 19 down to six international athletes, and through the day Edulji raced against the clock and around government buildings in New Delhi, getting paperwork sorted, talking her way past a star cast of bureaucrats, some obstructionist, some co-operative, and the RSCB secretary, who happened to be in Dhaka. At 5pm, she turned up triumphant in the RSCB president's office, papers ready for him to sign on six new international athletes for Railways.

"That is how you have to work," she laughs. Who knows what stories she will have to tell when her term is up as one of the panel of administrators appointed by the Supreme Court to ensure that the Lodha recommendations for BCCI reform are carried out. There is little doubt that it will involve many bouts of jousting, arm-wrestling, loophole-sealing, rule-enforcing sticking-to-gun-dom.

In such contests Edulji, as has been understood by many in the past, is fully capable of holding her own. When the news of her appointment to the panel of administrators first broke, there were chuckles in the ranks of the Indian women's game at the fact that the only cricketer considered suitable for the job by the country's highest court was a woman. Shubhangi Kulkarni, a former India captain and legspinner and a member of the ICC's and BCCI's women's sub-committees, uses the phrase "fantastic and unimaginable" about the appointment. "It's huge for women's cricket to have a woman as the only player appointed by the Supreme Court to take decisions and make suggestions for men's and women's cricket."

Anjum Chopra, former captain, stylish left-hand bat, and among the Edulji tribe of free-speaking, feisty women cricketers, was to tweet: "Not many times does one see a name of a woman cricketer trending. #DianaEdulji has made that possible today"

"If I had my way, women should not play cricket, and I wouldn't want them to play cricket also. We're only doing this [running women's cricket] because it is mandatory, because of ICC"

A former BCCI president to Diana Edulji

There is much more that Edulji, 61, made possible for women cricketers. Chopra remembers seeing her for the first time, as she strode past at the Nehru Stadium in Delhi during an institutional inter-zonal event. Chopra, then about 11 or 12, heard her mother say, "That is Diana Edulji. Captain of India." She became, to Chopra, "like one of those people whom you see and say, 'One fine day I will also get there.'"

Before the Lodha panel eruptions, Edulji retired last year from the Western Railways sports department, which she joined in 1993. In 1984 she convinced the railway minister at the time, future BCCI president Madhavrao Scindia, to field a women's cricket team. Railways went on to become the most powerful side in Indian women's cricket and produced generation after generation of internationals. In weekend matches featuring parliamentarians and women cricketers, the cricketers would convey their problems to the politically powerful fielding or batting alongside them. Edulji said, "My bosses would get upset, but I never bothered as long as the players benefited. Whoever benefited, I didn't mind."

She took up active administration in 2000, with Western Railways, and began to drive the department on her own from 2002, handling about 450 sportspeople at any given time, recruiting between 50 and 60 a year. It meant becoming a hard-boiled chaser of files and applier of pressure to get athletes on board across the vast red-taped Railways behemoth.

Edulji's former captain Shanta Rangaswamy says Edulji's interim BCCI administrator's job is an "enormous responsibility", and wonders if the panel will get a free hand at all. Her vice-captain, though, she says, is wired with never-say-die DNA, "She won't rest unless she gets what she wants. I'm positive she will apply all that here, because it's in her."

Edulji's selection as the lone cricketer in the panel of four was a sweet upending of the BCCI's more familiar order. Since the merger of the Indian women's game with the men's in November 2006, the women have generally been treated as an annoying mandatory attachment. Except over the last two years or so: In November 2015, it was the now recently ousted BCCI regime that offered contracts worth Rs 10 lakhs and Rs 15 lakhs to senior women players. In June 2016, unlike the men, the women were also cleared to compete in overseas T20 leagues.

However, in the same era, the Indian women also forfeited the chance to earn qualification points that would have fetched them direct entry into the 2017 World Cup. They were scheduled to play Pakistan in a full series of five matches in the UAE in October 2016, which did not take place, and the ICC felt the BCCI was not able to establish "acceptable reasons" for not participating. As things stand, the Indian women are competing in the qualifiers currently on in Sri Lanka. Had they had a louder voice in the BCCI's decision-making quarters, maybe they might have argued in favour of playing in that 2016 series.

Ever since the merger, there has been a BCCI women's sub-committee, but the women have had no voice in terms of broader policy decisions concerning their fates. Kulkarni, as convenor of the women's committee, remembers being invited for a few working committee meetings in the early years, but the invitations soon ceased to arrive. "After that, it was a woman's committee, which had its own meetings and would make whatever suggestions… What we have always been looking for is a representative on the working committee or at the board level to take up the issues of women's cricket."

You would expect the volume of resistance to women's cricket to have decreased a little since the 1980s, but Kulkarni says, "Although the facilities that the players get are much better than earlier, it's sad and disappointing that some in the board still feel that women should not play cricket, and that the amount spent on the women's game is a waste of money."

Little can match what happened to Edulji a few years ago in Mumbai, when she went over to congratulate a newly elected BCCI president and introduce him to the Railways representative on the board he would be working with. The new BCCI head said to RSCB secretary Jhanjha Tripathi and Edulji, "If I had my way, women should not play cricket, and I wouldn't want them to play cricket also. We're only doing this [running women's cricket] because it is mandatory, because of ICC." For a woman cricketer who has spent more than four decades in the game, these would not have been new words; except, they came in the 21st century, after the merger of the men's and women's game, from a BCCI president no less.

Today he is no longer in the job and it is Edulji who wields the power to speak for all Indian cricketers. No matter what happens to the court-appointed panel of administrators, Kulkarni says, Edulji will always be a pioneer. "It took a lot to actually play when no one expected women to play, when they said that cricket is not for women. She spoke for women cricketers all along."

Edulji's new job involves knocking heads with formidable but familiar cricketing adversaries: the older, entrenched BCCI men who have taken on the courts and will continue to rain their outrage and obstacles down on its orders. She says she wants "justice", but this justice is neither revenge nor retribution, just a fair deal for the women.

Standing back from the maelstrom, Chopra is the voice of reason when she says, "If you do a SWOT* analysis, this situation is not a threat for anyone. Everyone understands that men's cricket is the bigger sport, not women's cricket. This is an opportunity for doors to be opened for women's cricket to get highlighted, since Diana has captained the Indian team. But first and foremost, she has been chosen as a cricketer and she represents the entire cricket fraternity."

In Roman mythology, Diana was foremost a huntress; in Indian cricket she has been a perennial load-carrying vaulter over hurdles, a job she has loved doing. "I was always passionate for sports. It was very important for me. I always want sports to be in the limelight. Anything, it had to be the best… if my athletic team is going, it has to be the best, if my volleyball team is going, it had to be the best. Kabaddi, kho-kho, cricket, whatever. Always the best." That's not a bad aim for Indian cricket administration.

* 07:32:26 GMT, February 8, 2017: Corrected from "SWAT"