We have had female commentators for decades, but they tended to feed the consumer engine of the male cricket fan. Things are different now: the latest IPL introduced four former female cricketers as commentators, at a point when the one third of the viewership is now female. A ‘patriarchal lowlife’ from that noxious planet called Cricket takes stock.
By Partho Sengupta
As I write this, the eighth IPL season is entering its climactic weekend. For me, an IPL-skeptic and a 20-20 troglodyte who habitually sniffed at the bawdy spectacle, this year has been exciting enough to suck in the breath, repeatedly, and say, “Oooooh.”
I’ve been admiring the IPL not just for the flashing willow (which has been gathering girth and is no longer willowy), but for the astounding catches and periods of sustained, brilliant bowling. With the bats going on steroids in the last decade, I’ve felt the same sense of loss of the aesthetic from batting as when Jimmy Connors brought in his ugly but feisty double-handed tennis to battle the genius of John McEnroe in the 1980s. Hence my joy this season to see spin in Chennai, bounce in Brabourne; Raipur and Hyderabad were tricky wickets, and there was even an 80-meter boundary. Anything to counter the batsmen’s hegemony.
On opening night, I expected the notional John Cleese to announce, “…and now for something completely different” and unleash the same old commentary team. Imagine my surprise when we were introduced to four women commentators in the scrum. The retired quartet of Isa Guha, a fast bowler from England; Melanie Jones, a middle-order batswoman from Australia; Lisa Sthalekar, another Australian, an all-rounder and Anjum Chopra, a front-order batswoman from India. Each in a separate team covering the four commentary ‘zones’, thus ensuring that every match has one women commentator. It was a surprise because it was the equivalent of the BCCI agreeing to carbon emission targets without any coercion. The BCCI does not do pleasant surprises.
As you can see from the above para, cricket is rather male in its conception. The batsman is a man. Once women started playing in numbers, for years they were still called batsman, till someone finally mustered up enough Wren & Martin to start using the clunky ‘batswoman’. Baseball has the neutral ‘batter’ and many have now adopted that term accompanied by much tsk-tsk’ing by the purists.
The funny thing is, before the advent of the IPL and 20/20, it had seemed to me that we had very few women spectators for ODIs, fewer still for Tests. Even today, if I do a quick survey of my friends there isn’t a single woman friend of mine who is knowledgeable about cricket, or even pretends to be. My dearest friend is often heard proclaiming in that prana-bindu Dune voice of hers, “So there is a match tonight?” (meaning, “Don’t even think of watching it”). So purely by my own experience, and at the cost of being called a patriarchal lowlife (or PL) from the noxious planet called Cricket, I continue to be skeptical about the female being a cricket fan. And by a fan I mean a person who knows cover from third-man, leg-spin from off-spin, and a drive from a pull – someone who can make sense of the scorecard.
So what did I like about these women commentators? I liked that Isa said things like, “Jadeja is more round-arm tonight than he was in the last match”; and Mel said, “If he is going to come over-the-wicket, and with that bowling action of his, there is no point in keeping a deep square-leg while keeping long-leg vacant.” In other words, they were talking cricket. This made a considerable impact in my PL mind. Perhaps it has made a similar impact in other such conditioned minds.
There is data that may anyway force a rethink soon even for this PL. More than a third of the eighth IPL’s viewers have been reportedly female. It’s also easily verifiable that many more females, not necessarily from the young-adult age group, constitute the audience on the ground, in every ground this IPL. For many people I know of, this translates to the creation of the new woman cricket fan, a fan who refutes the image of the fan shown in the ad-spot where a young woman says that her favourite IPL team is Kolkata Knight Riders because it is owned by Shah Rukh Khan, and her second favourite is the one owned by Preity Zinta. Why? Because KKHH happens to be her favourite movie.
While this is amusing, such a discourse also falls into the trap of creating more stereotypes. This PL would love to see these stereotypes being broken by an increasing number of women. Some will remain the flaky viewer dramatised in the ad, some will become genuine cricket fans, while some, surely, will go on to become cricketers. Personally speaking, that would be fantastic.
As of now, I’m not quite sure if women commentators will create a fan-base of female cricket lovers. One still does not see women’s cricket being adequately sponsored, adequately televised and adequately discussed. The advent of women commentators has not changed that yet.
I say this because cricket has had female commentators since the 1980s, perhaps even the 70s. I remember Shanta Rangaswami, the captain of the Indian team doing a stint on radio. CK Nayudu’s daughter, Chandra used to do commentary too, but that was before my time. However, commentary on live play by women sitting in the cricket ground is still fairly rare. The famed BBC TMS (Test Match Special) team added Alison Mitchell in 2014, as did the team at Nine Sports who recruited the current Australian captain, Meg Lanning to do commentary alongside cricket greats Chappell and Taylor.
Similarly, we have had seasoned women cricket journalists in all large newspapers in the Anglo world. In India we have Sharda Ugra with a large, global fan-following. We have had expert woman cricketers doing the pre-match, intermission and post-match shows in almost all cricketing nations. We have even had someone like Mayanti Langer jockeying the show with aplomb in recent times, probing the experts with cricketing questions and tying playing techniques to the emotions of being a fan – something that has traditionally been a male bastion.
All of the above have fed the existing consumer engine constituting the male cricket fan. The number of women consumers has increased. However, I’d like to posit that the fate of women’s cricket has not changed; the status of the woman fan has not seen ferment.
Coming back to our commentators, I also liked the fact that the quartet was slid in with such little fuss, with such matter-of-factness, or as Shane Warne says, with ‘no drama’, that I was left wondering if perhaps this is how it ought to be. After all, why should women not be just as interested, just as knowledgeable as the male cricket fan? In this age where the proverbial glass ceiling is being questioned, debated and sublimated in every field of human endeavour, why should this beautifully nuanced game of cricket be reduced to perpetuating stereotypes, when it can just as easily move to break it? Which is why even this PL wishes that in not too distant a future, he could be caught at the neighbourhood watering place arguing over the wisdom of playing Sanju Samson purely as a batsman, or getting dunked in irrefutable statistics quoted by friends who are just as vociferous, of whom some just happen to be female.
Over the weeks I’ve had another thought – each of these four women had played for their countries, each had played Tests and ODIs, each had played World Cups. Three of the four had been in World Cup-winning teams. This is an extraordinary achievement. One can’t help compare them with the male commentators in this IPL, many of whom have never even played international cricket, let alone be part of World Cup-winning teams. Some would say that this quartet is more qualified than many of the male commentators.
I’m not sure if we, the watching public, quite see these ladies in that light. And if this institutionalization of the woman commentator succeeds, that is what one would hope to see – a blinkerless gaze at expertise, not colored by gender and stereotypes, the opening of minds, paving the way for more citadels of sports’ bigotry to crumble and fall.