Mithali Raj and Co. give fillip to women and sports in India
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The significance—indeed the triumph—of the Indian women’s cricket team’s performance surmounts last Sunday’s heartbreak at Lord’s. The World Cup final was lost, but a whole new world has perhaps been gained.
The match turned out to be a classic, swinging one way, then the other, bringing viewers to the edge of their seats as the climax approached. This was a contest between two teams evenly matched in skills and ambition.
In such situations, the result usually shifts to other attributes like mental toughness, greater experience and, also, a little luck. This is where India, on the cusp of victory, were found wanting.
Stronger nerves and a little more discretion at crucial moments could have seen the team home. From 191 for 3 and enough overs in hand, the collapse to 219 was unexpected and disappointing.
This perspective, however, denies England credit for winning from a near hopeless position. Most teams would have thrown in the towel. The English steeled themselves, piled on pressure for an opening, and having got it, turned the tables on India remarkably.
Purely from a sporting point of view, there is no substitute for winning. England won by a slender nine runs. In the record books, that margin becomes monumental, as it separates the winner from the also ran. History, as we know, venerates only champions.
The result doesn’t discredit India, though. From qualifying for the tournament to reaching the final, the team’s performance was trailblazing, punctuated with some enthralling individual contributions that lit up the World Cup.
But there is a story beyond what transpired in the middle that is more compelling. As Mithali Raj and Co. reached the final, conquering New Zealand and defending champions Australia, unprecedented momentum was built up off the field too.
Their success captured the imagination of the entire country. Popular appeal turned to national fervour, hard-boiled critics were roused to acclaim, dormant administrators woke up to a new reality, and the media was inspired into unprecedented, “carpet-bombing” coverage.
All this suggests that upliftment on a panoramic scale is possible: not just for women’s cricket, but, by extension, all sports, and women in general in India.
Where cricket is concerned, it would be a diabolical neglect of opportunity if the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the International Cricket Council (ICC) don’t build on the tempo gained in this World Cup. How to translate the current fascination and pride in the team into long-term advantage is the challenge for administrators.
There has been tremendous improvement in women’s cricket in India ever since it came under the jurisdiction of the BCCI. The time when players like Shanta Rangaswamy, Diana Edulji, etc., would run from pillar to post to raise funds for just kit and travel has thankfully passed.
But more needs to be done to promote women’s cricket. Tapping talent in the 10-14 age group and supporting elite seniors to play widely and well are paramount. This can be done through academies (at the junior level) and a structured, full itinerary for the national team.
There is a lot of talk about whether the women’s team will be paid as much as the men, whether there should be a women’s Indian Premier League, etc. Given the financial health of the BCCI, both are possible. Primarily, however, the parity sought should be of equal status. The money will follow.
Essentially, like men’s cricket, the future of women’s cricket is linked to the Indian passion for the game. So everything that can help players perform well and consistently to hold the attention of fans and sponsors must be done.
On a broader plane, juxtaposing the achievements of the women’s cricket team with those of Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu, Sakshi Malik, the Phogat sisters, Dipa Karmakar, M. C. Mary Kom, etc., in the past few years shows the high potential for sporting excellence in Indian women.
There is a message in all this for you, me, all of us. Free the girl child from restrictive societal prejudices. If almost 50% of the country’s population cannot participate in sport, India cannot become a sporting nation.
Or truly equal.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.