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Caught at fine leg

With indian women’s cricket in a mess, here’s how the game has developed in the country in the recent past

Indians at this point of time have their eyes glued to the exploits of men in blue as they face off against Australia. But while India won the T20 series against Australia and is waiting for the Test and ODI series, another team just reached the semifinals of the World Cup T20 in West Indies. It was the Indian women’s cricket team led by Harmanpreet Kaur.

Women’s cricket has always been a part of the cricketing structure of India, even though it never captured popular imagination. With players like Diana Edulji and Shantha Rangaswami, the country always produced quality cricketers for the national team. In fact, the Indian women’s cricket team participated in the first Women’s World Cup in 1973, two years before the inaugural men’s Cup in 1975.

But the women never got the recognition they deserved. Veteran sports analyst Manjot Kalra points out, “We have Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal…some of the shooters have done really well in the South Asian Games, the women’s hockey team qualified for the Olympic Games. In terms of that, the Indian women’s cricket team hasn’t quite had the same impact on our mindset.”

He feels that this is because most successful sportswomen in the country compete in sports which have no major female star in the country. Cricket comes with a baggage of heavyweight male names whom the audience prefer to watch.

However, this situation saw a turnaround in the year 2017, the year that bore witness to the 11th edition of the Women’s Cricket World Cup in England. The Indian team led by Mithali Raj had a dream run in the tournament. They beat world champions England in the opening match, and had an unbeaten run all the way to the finals. This was the second time in the history of the World Cup that India reached the finals, but it was the way they reached that made the nation take notice of them. Unfortunately, the team lost to England in the finals.

The TV ratings in each of the matches since the opening match witnessed major spikes, with the rating in every match growing at a rate of more than 50%, according to statistics from Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC).

The final match saw a record 130 million views around the world on television, with India having more than 65% of share in it, according to statistics from International Cricket Council (ICC). This made this the most watched women’s cricket match ever in history. The research from ICC also points out that there was a significant growth of rural viewership in India for the World Cup finals.

It was not only the viewership that took a spike, but the coverage for the sport on different news platforms also saw a huge increase. When Mithali Raj & Co. were leaving for the World Cup, there were only 12 journalists present to cover the event. On the press conference that followed their historic run in the World Cup, 60 journalists attended the event held at a major five-star hotel in Mumbai.

Even, the matches were covered in all leading dailies as the lead for the sports page, while previously it made space on a small corner in the inside pages.

“Media coverage has got more extensive, focused and there are now a lot of player profiles. For the first time, the life struggles and social background of women players is being written about. Women cricketers have become high profile, appear in TV ads and are called for social events”, says veteran sports analyst Novy Kapadia.

The ongoing T20 World Cup, where the Harmanpreet Kaur-led Indian team, had a great run but was knocked out by South Africa in the semi-finals, saw the matches finding its place as one of the leading attractions on Indian television, even greater than the much anticipated and hyped Pro Kabaddi League season 6. During the course of the tournament, Mithali Raj overtook Rohit Sharma to become the leading run scorer for India in international T20s.

However, the foundation of this success can be credited entirely to the 2017 Women’s World Cup. “Women’s cricket was always considered a slow game, with barely few sixes and fours coming its way. But when Harmanpreet Kaur scored 171 runs in the World Cup against England, it somewhat broke not only the mental barriers of the spectators, but also for us,” says Sharmila, a cricketer who trains at the Deshapriya Park Cricket Academy in Kolkata. Kaur also smashed a century in the recently concluded World T20, thus becoming the first Indian to do so.

“Not only that, the whole team’s performance in the 2017 World Cup, and now the World T20, has inspired more and more women to take up the sport. Now, there are more girls coming to our academy, than it used to be, say two years ago”, she adds.

However, women’s cricket still has a long way to go, says veteran sports journalist Harpreet Lamba. “It is too early to say but definitely a small step has been taken towards the popularity for the sport in general in the country”, she says.

But amidst all these positives, the Indian women’s cricket scene is suffering from a major meltdown. Captain Harmanpreet Kaur dropped experienced Mithali Raj from the semi-finals, which many experts believed to be the major reason for their loss. Raj’s manager hurled negative comments on the captain, while the former captain herself wrote an open letter to BCCI, regarding how she had been mistreated by the management, especially coach Ramesh Powar and chairman Diana Edulji.

Can women’s cricket get out of this puddle of internal rivalry, and once again shine as a team? We’ll have to wait and watch for the answers.