Twenty-nine-year-old Vrinda Rathi is not offended when teenage boys sometimes call her ‘Sir’. It’s not a comment on her short hair or her genderblurring camouflage of black pants and white-full-sleeved Tshirt but, quite simply, a matter of habit. Women umpires are a rare presence on Mumbai’s testosterone-heavy maidans, so such slips of the tongue are inevitable. When they happen, Rathi maintains the same stoic calm that she does in the face of shrill appealing. Her umpire personality is less Billy Bowden and more Kumar Dharmasena but, for someone who likes to be the least visible person on the field, the spotlight is about to get harsher than Mumbai’s October sun.
Last month, Rathi—a Navi-Mumbai-based fitness coach whose weekends disappear in a hot blur of scoring and umpiring for local cricket matches-—cleared BCCI’s Level 2 umpiring exam which, along with Chennai’s N Janani, makes her one of India’s first women umpires who can officiate matches at the national level. Apart from well-intentioned ribbing from her uncles who are conspiring to “fix matches” and “travel for free”, this success brings Rathi—who has been officiating Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) matches since 2013—the chance to umpire in women’s cricket matches and junior boys’ matches across India. The jump in her pay is of the kind that makes years of bladder control on the job seem worth it. “It’s a substantial raise,” says Rathi, who measures her words with the zeal of a score-keeper. “But with that comes great responsibility to prove your worth.”
It was during her stint as a scorer at the Women’s World Cup in 2013 that Rathi first spotted a woman umpire: New Zealand’s cheerful, short-haired Kathy Cross. Soon, intoxicated with the idea of progressing to umpiring, Rathi appeared for the local and state-level umpiring exams and effectively bid farewell to weekends, picnics and washroom breaks at will. From September to April every year, she now tries to get close to 60 match days on an average under her belt. “Umpiring requires you to hone your skills under the scorching sun,” says Rathi, adding that the job calls for both physical ensurance and mental toughness. More than body language, communication and interpersonal skills, it’s astute decision-making that defines a good umpire, says Rathi, who prefers being a “facilitator of play” rather than “a mechanical enforcer of law”. She has noticed that “the higher the level of umpiring, the simpler is the person”.
Though playing experience isn’t essential to appear for the umpiring exam, Rathi—a medium pacer during her college days—can boast of four years of representing Mumbai University. Clearing the BCCI exam’s various levels entailing theory, viva and practicals over two years called for the same patience with which she had managed to lower the many raised eyebrows that greeted her and Varsha Nagre in the Mumbai of 2013, when they stuck out as anomalies in umpire hats. “Initially, there were unsubstantiated apprehensions about the quality that a woman umpire may bring in,” says Rathi, adding that in the end, it’s performance that wins out. “When everyone around knows that you mean business at the centre of the field, your gender does not matter,” adds Rathi, the commerce graduate in her glad that she could win the confidence of her “stakeholders” over time.
It’s this inherent patience and “lack of rigidity” in women, Rathi feels, that lends them an edge over men on the field. “Ego is something an umpire can not afford,” says Rathi, who loves sensing the cold war between the batsmen and bowlers in boys’ cricket and relishes the speed and intensity it brings. “Boys also control their aggression in presence of women umpires,” finds Rathi, who also enjoys the gentle camaraderie in women’s cricket and is optimistic about the game growing more inclusive. Already, as far as scorers go, she says, “it’s the women who are ruling the maidans in Mumbai”. Besides, the city now brags six women umpires.
Rathi can now leave behind memories of travelling from Nerul to Kandivali which has always “felt like travelling to a different state” as she prepares to officiate her debut match in Puducherry. She would like it if the boys in this under-16 match called her ‘Madam