The slow rise of women cricketers
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In June 2001, the Australian women’s cricket team was touring England, and Melanie Jones had just been dropped from the team. It was a time when women players didn’t get contracts or a full-time salary. But one of the games was being telecast—as part of a mandated agreement—and Sky Sports asked Jones if she would like to do commentary for one match. What Jones really wanted to do was play cricket, not talk about it. But the channel offered her a one-time fee. “I said, ‘That’s it. I’m in,’” recalls Jones on the phone from England, laughing. “I had never until then been paid for anything in cricket in my life.”
That summer day was Jones’ first in the commentary box, a gig she would do part-time over the years while working at her day job as a talent manager with a sports marketing group. Last November, she moved into commentary full-time, something she had never anticipated doing. “No, no, not at all,” she says. “It was a hobby, a way of staying in touch with the game.”
This year, Jones commentated at the Pakistan Super League for the first time. She has assignments in the Caribbean and will be back home for the Big Bash, Australia’s Twenty20 league. She also worked at the Indian Premier League (IPL) earlier this year and the recently concluded women’s World Cup.
Jones was part of a group of women in the World Cup commentary team, including former England pacer Isa Guha, former India captain Anjum Chopra and former Australian all-rounder Lisa Sthalekar.
Women have worked as television hosts—from Mandira Bedi during the cricket World Cup in 2003 to Mayanti Langer in the Champions Trophy in 2017—but live match commentary has generally remained a male bastion. Decades after television and radio began streaming cricket matches live, the default soundtrack to matches has been a male voice: from the reliable tone of Richie Benaud, to the grumpy energy of Geoffrey Boycott, and the regurgitated clichés of Ravi Shastri.
But a growing number of women are chipping away at the glass ceiling, and, with the success of this year’s women’s World Cup, the opportunity for women in commentary positions will only increase.
“If officials want to grow the game, they need to appeal to the female audience, and having a female voice in the commentary box is more indicative of what the landscape is,” says Sthalekar, who has been doing full-time commentary for three years. “I think women look at the game differently. A lot of women watch the game, so why can’t you have a female voice explaining it to you?”
The IPL broadcasters evidently sensed this, and brought four women into the commentary panel for the first time in 2015: Jones, Guha, Sthalekar and Chopra. It wasn’t just about diversity, it also made commercial sense. “The IPL, since its inception, had a huge following, with more and more female fans following the tournament on television every season,” says a spokesperson for the Board of Control for Cricket in India, on email. “It was, therefore, a natural progression for the tournament to have female commentators coming on board and offering their perspective.”
The first season was terribly exciting for the new draft of women, though the opportunity came with a dose of pressure. “There was a sense of if we make a mistake, we were ruining every other woman’s opportunity to commentate in cricket,” says Sthalekar. “We felt a huge responsibility to make sure we got it right.”
Being a former player certainly helped. Chopra says she had been doing match analysis for more than a decade, and commentary was a natural progression. “It’s an extension of me being a player and having played the sport for a long time,” she says. “It is humbling to get opportunities to explore this field.”
These women have returned to the IPL since. But even earlier, women had been at work for the BBC, on radio and television, in the UK. Isabelle Duncan, who has played for multiple clubs and is a Marylebone Cricket Club member, was first asked to do some county games in 2013. Increased coverage meant increased opportunities for commentary, so off Duncan went. Still, in the early days there was a feeling “of proving yourself out there to the male world to some extent”.
But the box has generally been a welcoming place, and broadcasters like the BBC have been broad-minded and keen to get knowledgeable women on board. “Women’s cricket has come on so much in the last 10 years and that also needs to be represented in the media,” says Duncan. “You have women coming through and playing well and attracting a lot of attention and then you have more women in the media as well.”
A female presence in the commentary box sometimes helps tweak perceptions incrementally. For instance, Sthalekar recalls an IPL contest where viewers were invited to pick a name for the Spidercam. All the names suggested were male names. “And I said to the producer and my fellow commentators, why does it have to be a man’s name? And they were like, good point,” she says.
Subtle word choices can also make the game more inclusive. Commentators are now consciously trying to say “any boy or girl watching” rather than explaining techniques just to the “boys out there”. “It’s just a simple change in language,” says Sthalekar. “A young girl could be watching the programme and go, ‘So they said little girl, that’s me, so I’ll listen now.’”
In a technical sense, are women commentators different from the men in any way? Women’s voices are generally pitched higher, and this is something they are conscious of, especially during the bursts of excitement that come with watching sports. “It can be a bit piercing for the listener,” says Duncan. “Other than that, there’s not much.”
Women also tend to speak with an upward-ending inflection; something that might make statements feel less assertive. “We are quite mindful of that now,” says Jones. “They teach us we need to go up and down.” But sometimes it’s hard to stay the course in the pulsating throes of action. “I get so involved that my aim is to get through the game without swearing,” says Jones, laughing.
But social media backlash is inevitable, though the women are unperturbed. “I think it’s a modern world and if people can’t accept it then they aren’t going to survive in the world,” says Duncan. “Because the world is evolving and we are making our presence known.”