I discovered women’s cricket through the internet. To me – and perhaps to many more sportswriters than will admit – Diana Edulji was the answer to a quiz question and the Women’s Cricket Association Of India a cipher for most of my life. I found, and am still learning, about the women’s game not through its players, but through its fans. Acouple of years ago, I discovered the work of sportswriters Ananya Upendran and Snehal Pradhan, the latter of whom is writing a profile of every cricketer in the Indian squad currently playing the ICC Women’s World Cup.
I went to all of one game of the Women’s T20 World Cup last year, but could follow the rest largely through the terrific coverage of feminist website The Ladies’ Finger. One of the most memorable sports essays I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the last couple of years was written by ex- Mumbai cricketer Anagha Rajadhyaksha, who made it into the team because she badgered the Mumbai U-19 team practicing at Bombay Gymkhana into giving her an over, and they acquiesced. (Rajadhyaksha is no longer a cricketer, the reasons for which she addresses in her essay, too.)
I have also discovered many men defensively explain their lack of interest in women’s cricket by calling it too slow or lacking in the technical finesse they’re used to in high-level men’s cricket. Certainly Jhulan Goswami is no Shoaib Akhtar. But almost no other man really is, either. The idea that the pleasure of watching cricket derives from watching its most physically dominant practitioners is more or less indefensible; it needs us only to think back to the one guy we all know who’ll be glued to re-runs of the 2011Bangladesh-West Indies series if it’s playing before bedtime.
But I am biased. My theory about our fascination with games, especially as remote spectators, has less to do with the difference of 20 or 30 miles per hour in the speed of the ball, and more to do with the micro-language of the game. The figures on the screen aren’t just the machines that propel a bat or ball to do interesting things, after all: they are bodies, faces, stories and names. Their fields are not just laboratories of human endurance: they are places where we experience the sounds and faces that other human beings like us make, taking up the story unfolding on the field and expanding it.
Cricket isn’t just its physical manifestation — it is history and memory and recognition. Our collective disinterest in women’s cricket, therefore, has less to do with the femaleness of the sport than with the poverty of the story. The now-disbanded WCAI formed in the 1970s and has a history not much longer than Sunil Gavaskar’s. (Shoutout to his sister Nutan, one of the game’s early stars.) Great spikes of interest in the world sport – the careers of Belinda Clark and Claire Taylor, the success of Aussie Big Bash tournaments – by and large passed us by because no one was broadcasting the Indian women‘s matches, and few were covering it.
The ICC scheduling last year’s T20 tournament simultaneously for both genders made a palpable difference in perception: broadcast rights for both sets of matches were bundled together. Even if the women were playing in relatively empty stadiums, they were available: we could learn their names, and begin to identify them by their body language, their skills, and the faces they made when they dropped catches and missed chances. More importantly, the media industry may have begun to sense an opportunity. Over the last few years, Indian public culture has started to favour – with some anxiety – the heroics of plucky women defying adversity.
This has made icons of Dipa Karmakar and PV Sindhu. It is, of course, historically easier for fans to immerse themselves in the world of individual women athletes than in team sports: we may not all know the specifics of what they do, but we all seem to thrill to what they represent. Now, not wholly – not even substantially – this spotlight veers towards the cricket field. This month, people who have never seen Mithali Raj play have learned who she is, thanks to some clever, delightful public appearances. Those who didn’t watch her anchor a superb innings against New Zealand on Saturday know, at least, that she is a centurymaker, a run-getter, an athlete of high accomplishments.
As the team enters the semi-final (perhaps going on to a final), more of their compatriots will know their names and faces than ever before. More people than ever perhaps did the same as I did this Saturday, tuning in to see Veda Krishnamurthy‘s blazing 75; to see Harmanpreet Kaur efficiently scooping up a fluffed shot to mid-wicket; to see Deepti Sharma’s delicious, looping delivery to knock out Katie Perkins‘ leg-stump; to let all these things drive small hooks into their hearts, reeling them in closer than ever.