Time to harvest women’s cricket

- March 12, 2023
| By : Reema Malhotra |

Pursuing cricket was tough for girls during our times but now more parents are pushing their daughters into the sport as it promises fame and riches

STAR PLAYERS: Smriti Mandhana (L) and Harmanpreet Kaur (R) have become icons for young cricketers in the Capital and the country

The recent few days have seen a surge in interest in women’s cricket thanks to India’s title victory at the under-19 World Cup in January, the big money that players have attracted at the Women’s Premier League (WPL) auction besides the start of the inaugural edition of the tournament featuring some of the biggest players on the planet.

There is no doubt that women’s cricket has come a long way, in India and in the Capital.

I remember the day when I would play gully cricket (cricket in lanes and by-lanes) with the boys of my colony. There were those among our acquaintances and family who’d come and say, “Why does she play with the guys in the lanes. There are so many girls to play with, why does she have to play cricket with the guys. There is badminton, other games that girls play.”

But I was lucky that my immediate family backed me very much. My dad, KS Malhotra, who used to play for Indian Airlines, backed me to the hilt. I would accompany him for matches – when he’d play and later when he was the manager of the team. He allowed us to do whatever we wanted to.

Despite the encouragement, we did not even know that women’s cricket existed while we were at school. We had baseball/softball in school sports curriculum.

In fact, the awareness was so less and the presence of women’s cricket in Delhi was so little that I started playing and learning cricket properly only when I came to college. Before that, I had played in kho-kho nationals, my first event at national level. Then I competed in athletics in the 100-metre relay race. Then I played football at the university level and later at the national level. I have a gold too in the nationals. After that, I played baseball. So you see, there was no cricket at school level. I used to study at Lilawati Vidya Mandir School in Gulabi Bagh (in north Delhi).

It was only during the softball camp that I encountered this journalist, who used to write for a Hindi paper. He suggested that I should try cricket since my shots and catching were good. I told him that I wanted to play cricket but there was no women’s cricket. He said, ‘who told you there’s no women’s cricket? There is. It is just that people don’t know’.

So what I am trying to say is that we were not even aware that women’s cricket was there. And since women’s cricket was not popular, we always looked up to the male stars. I was a big fan of the late Shane Warne. Firstly, he was very handsome and secondly, no one could play him. I think I had never missed any of his games on TV. I started cricket copying his action. My action became a bit like him. When I started bowling leg-spin, I was told that since my height is short, I should bowl this and not medium pace. This was at a short camp organised by the Delhi Administration.

Thanks to that journalist, I also got to meet Hardeep Dua, who was the only coach at Kamla Nehru College (KNC), which was the hub of women’s cricket. In fact, there were only two colleges that had women’s cricket – Gargi College was the other one. Jesus and Mary’s College had a bit of it.

He asked me to play in a friendly game between KNC and Gargi. I bowled my first ball there with that Warne-style action. I got good turn and clean bowled a batter. Hardeep Dua called me and gave me Rs 50 and asked me to return home in an auto as a reward. It was big amount then.

He said, ‘Bring your papers and I will want you to get admitted here in KNC only’.

This was in the mid to late 90s. I had cleared class 12th back then, and had little cricket behind me. I had finally got a platform.

But if there was ever a feeling that the path will be smooth and free of hurdles, I was badly mistaken.

We soon realised the problems we had to face as a woman cricketer. Like we had to travel, even while representing Delhi, in unreserved train compartment on a number of occasions. Often there used to be no seat for us. Sometimes, we would sit on the floor or sometimes we’d have just 2-3 seats and we would take turns to sit. Whenever we’d travel outside for tournaments — we had only Rani Jhansi Trophy and some invitational tournaments — we would travel with difficulty. We didn’t have facilities to travel by flight or upper tiers in trains. I remember that once when we had gone outstation for an open tournament, 11 of us had to stay in one room.

Grounds also used to be poor. There weren’t many tournaments for us. Besides Rani Jhansi, run by the then Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI), we’d get to play inter-zonal tournaments. We’d play open tournaments and invitational tournaments. Though there was no money, there was passion. But we played on such bad grounds that it used to get difficult for girls to field. Girls’ cricket never used to be promoted anywhere and they’d often be teased on the grounds that this game is not for women.

But the passion among us was so much and there so much motivation to do well that we didn’t even consider that cricket provides no financial security.

There were no academies for girls, and boys and girls never used to practice together. We got to practice only in the college. There never used to be any facility for school-kids. Cricket training for school-kids has begun only recently as the sport has gained in popularity with regular broadcast. That time, we ourselves weren’t aware that there is competitive cricket for women even though we were interested in it. We came to cricket after playing multiple sports.

Neither would you get enough matches, nor practice facilities or travelling facilities. There was no recognition and some family members would come and say why we are even playing cricket.

I have seen cases where the girls in our college used to come to the venue after lying to parents that they would be attending classes. They wanted to play inter-college matches desperately but could only do that secretly. I had family support, I’d go in kit from home but they would leave their homes in normal dresses and change into kit only after arriving.

The difference between that era and this era is that there was a lot of talent that has now got wasted – bohot sa talent tha jo chhip gaya, jise chhapna chaahiye tha (A lot of talent that should have been published, got wasted). I have seen a lot of talent get wasted due to family pressure. There was no awareness, no money in the sport. There was no value for women’s cricket. Nobody wanted to take it up, nor was anyone willing to invest in it. If you don’t have the security of a future, why’d you want to pursue or promote it? Those who were backed by their families went ahead and progressed. Those who weren’t, they couldn’t complete their dreams.

This was then, but things have changed now. There are superstars like the just-retired Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami and the current India lot comprising Harmanpreet Kaur, Jemimah Rodrigues, Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma, Renuka Thakur, Deepti Sharma among others.

There is money and stardom now.

I have heard that parents themselves are bringing their kids to cricket academies nowadays.

The writer is a former India women’s team cricketer and is part of the commentary team at the ongoing Women’s Premier League