By Shamya Dasgupta
I can’t claim to have followed women’s cricket closely over the years. Only that they were present in the firmament somewhere. When we were growing up, Diana Edulji’s name used to be in the papers almost every day. Then Jhulan Goswami and Mithali Raj, many years later, became such heroes. Some of us who quizzed knew the trivia. But I have no memories of watching women’s cricket – whether that was borne out of prejudice or not, I don’t know, but it never quite worked out.
There are writers – Wisden India is fortunate to have a few of them – who follow women’s cricket closely and write passionately and regularly about the grind. They know the inside dope, the goods, the bads and the uglies. They write about how, with the contracts coming into place in many of the top-tier systems and the rising prominence of women’s world events in recent times, these are the best of times. And, for a multitude of other reasons, how it isn’t quite so.
Still, it’s fair to say that women’s cricket, at least in the top teams, is in better health than it used to be. Women cricketers past and present have fought the good fight to make it so. Edulji for one: “The MCC should change its name to the MCP,” she quipped once when refused entry to the Lord’s pavilion – not something that is likely to happen today. For all the progress though, the road ahead is long, and a strange and meandering one.
Now, the trick is in converting the unconverted – an attempt that is on already for all formats of men’s cricket. Sure, there are the cricket die-hards, but their number isn’t big enough to make the formats sustainable beyond a point, commercially. And attempts are being made all the time – pink-ball day-night Tests, for example – to draw people to the grounds.
So, yes, convert the unconverted. Perhaps in the way T20 has hooked the younger generation.
Or the ICC Women’s Championship, which has done an excellent job of catching the eyeballs of at least one cricket fan: This blogger.
I’ll admit that I did not jump in excitement the first time I heard of it. See, if you aren’t really interested in something, whatever it is – a piece of art, a book, a concept, a sport – there’s a good chance it’s because you have never bothered to engage with it. Then, with women’s cricket, there are preconceived notions that may keep you from it: Slow bowling, slow hitting, slow running… If you engage with it, that might end in a big eureka moment where you discover what you had missed out on for so long or, who knows, cement your conviction that you were right.
Or something in between.
Over the past month or so – the action picked up in September, went up a notch in October, and peaked in November – all the top-eight teams have been in action, often simultaneously. It hasn’t been possible to view it all, but following it has been enriching. India v West Indies. Sri Lanka v England. New Zealand v Pakistan. Australia v South Africa. A big race for points, the last few ones to be earned; daily updates on the points table, some teams running away from the pack at the top, a couple of teams left with no chance at all. It was becoming more and more exciting with each passing day – much in the way leagues are – and if Australia, England and New Zealand weren’t so much stronger than the rest of the teams, it could have gotten even more fascinating, the mad, late rush.
And, while I have been an admirer of the extremely skilled Ellyse Perry and a couple of others, like Meg Lanning and Laura Marsh and Stafanie Taylor and Suzie Bates and Deandra Dottin, and the Indian stars of course, the talents of Amy Satterthwaite, Lizelle Lee, Anisa Mohammed, Sune Luus and Ayabonga Khaka were a revelation. They were just names. Nothing more. Now – yes. And what about the brilliant individual performers from the smaller, possibly less privileged, teams: Sana Mir, Javeria Khan and Bismah Maroof of Pakistan, and Chamari Atapattu, Prasadani Weerakkody and Inoka Ranaweera of Sri Lanka?
In an unrelated chat, Preston Mommsen, the recently-retired captain of the Scotland men’s team, talked up the importance of context.
At the Associate-Affiliate level, he said, every match was a means to get somewhere, move up to a higher division or qualify for something or the other; there was a bit more than just the result at these games, there was wider context, and that heightened the pressure.
That should make for more intense competition, I offered.
“It makes for incredibly enthralling cricket, that’s for sure,” he said. “Some really good cricket, some really close games… the added pressure, there is so much more context. In many ways, it can be more entertaining than watching a dead rubber One-Day International between the top teams. [This] brings out the best in players and teams. Look at Afghanistan, they are the best in the bracket, but look at how many of the other teams have beaten them.”
I agree. Some of the qualifying competitions for the men’s 50-over World Cups and the World T20s have been riveting.
As has been the case with the ICC Women’s Championship.
It ended with Australia, England and New Zealand finishing well clear of the rest, West Indies at No. 4 on 22 points, and India at No. 5 on 19 points. India, unlike the top four teams, played 18 games against 21, because they forfeited their games against Pakistan – who ended their 18 games with just eight points. You’d think that India would have beaten Pakistan – two wins in three games would have placed them ahead of West Indies on that table.
What could have been … but that’s an aside.
Context isn’t everything, of course. It’s not the one-stop solution to make women’s cricket or any of the ‘lesser’ formats of the game more popular either. But it’s a start, a small but very crucial step. That’s the starting point – getting disinterested people to stop and stare, throw in a second glance. It will then need to be backed up by the truly important things: To have systems in place, to make sure that people who have at least taken a passing interest in a new thing stay in there for the long haul, to support and respect the players. I think that should clinch it, yes.
Shamya Dasgupta is Senior Editor at Wisden India. He tweets @shamyad.
This piece was first published on Wisden India.