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On 23 July, lakhs of Indians sat glued to their screens, hoping that our women’s cricket team brings home that prestigious World Cup trophy.

Although that didn’t happen, the country hailed the grit and efforts of the women in blue for making it to the final. It was no easy feat, given the secondary treatment given by the cricket board, in terms of lower match fees and inferior infrastructure. Let’s also not forget the many challenges of playing for and in a mainly patriarchal society.

Many said that what the men couldn’t, women would, and social networking sites were abuzz with the age-old men versus women debate.

But the popularity women’s cricket enjoys today is a result of the relentless effort and hard work of both women and men over the past two decades.

Members of the Mumbai Under-19 women’s cricket team pose for a group picture. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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Members of the Mumbai Under-19 women’s cricket team pose for a group picture. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Andhra Pradesh cricketer R. Kalpana can’t stress enough on the importance of a dedicated coach, and gives the example of her coach’s willingness to go beyond his prescribed duties to help girls like her play for the country, or play at all.

“If not for Srinivasa Reddy (coach for Andhra Pradesh women’s team for eight years), I would have been married and working as perhaps a house maid," says Kalpana, 23, wicketkeeper of the national team in 2015.

She currently works and plays for the Railways and aims to get back to the Indian squad next year.

Seven years ago, the story was different. Her father, an auto driver, wanted to marry her off at the age of 17 and discontinue her cricket. “I belong to a poor family. My mother can’t work because of her health condition, my brother is handicapped and I also have a younger sister. Feeding so many of us had always been a task," says Kalpana.

Hence, her father thought that she shouldn’t waste time playing cricket, a “man’s sport", which for girls is mere “time-pass", and must get married to ease his burden and make way for her sister’s wedding.

Just when teenager Kalpana was beginning to lose hope, her coach Reddy stepped in and decided to visit Kalpana’s parents. “I told them that their daughter was good at cricket and that if she kept at it, she would be able to lift the family from poverty and also play for India one day," he says.

Kalpana’s father wasn’t quite convinced, and a few days later, another counselling session by the coach was arranged at the Andhra Pradesh academy for women’s cricket. It was decided by the Andhra Pradesh Cricket Association that Kalpana and other girls like her would get a monthly stipend to help them play on and also to dissuade parents from quashing their dreams.

“I don’t blame the parents," says Reddy. “In my eight years of experience as a woman’s cricket coach, I have seen that 90% of Andhra girls interested in sports come from poor families." The middle-class and upper-class families mostly prefer education over sports for their daughters.

“The poor here usually get their daughter married by the time they are 17 and worry more about buying the family two meals than a cricket bat or a kit."

A member of the Mumbai Under-19 women’s cricket team bowls at a practice session. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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A member of the Mumbai Under-19 women’s cricket team bowls at a practice session. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

In such circumstances, drop-outs are plenty, but the stipend system started in 2011 has helped tremendously. “On several occasions Reddy sir and other coaches have gifted girls T-shirts, track pants and bats to help them play better. This is of great help and serves as a motivator for players," says Kalpana.

Such gestures from women’s coaches aren’t unusual.

World Cup player Punam Raut has a similar story. “My father is a driver and found it hard to buy me the kit or training clothes," says Raut. “My coach Sanjay Gaitonde helped me time and again, by not just making these available to me, but also counselling me about my life on the ground and at home and ensuring that I get enough practice whenever required."

Gaitonde, she says, was also her pillar of strength during one of her most challenging times: when she was dropped from the Indian team. “He always told me to work hard and not worry too much about selection. His hard work has paid off," says Raut. “Everyone talks of parents’ contribution in their lives. That’s, of course, important, but in women’s cricket a good, dedicated coach is crucial for any player’s success. My coach is like my father."

“Not just coaches, even senior players like Rohit Sharma have gifted cricket kits to both girls and boys. But, usually more girls than boys are in need of a sponsored kit," says Gaitonde, coach of the indoor cricket academy at the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA), who has been training girls for nine years.

Women players also make far less per match than men. For a four-day Ranji Trophy match, men are paid Rs10,000 a day. For what is known as “Ranji for women"—the Senior Women’s One Day League—the players are paid Rs3,500 a match.

A member of the Mumbai Under-19 women’s cricket team plays a delivery during a practice session. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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A member of the Mumbai Under-19 women’s cricket team plays a delivery during a practice session. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

For two years now, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has been organizing three-day inter-zonal matches for women and, here too, the per day fee remains the same—Rs3,500.

“However, unlike five years ago, parents are a lot more supportive of their daughters’ sports career, but some families with limited earnings still give preference to their son’s future and compromise on their daughter’s," says Gaitonde.

Hence, Vikas Satam, a cricket coach in Navi Mumbai, training girls since 2003 and boys since 1996, doesn’t charge any fee for females. “If I ask them to pay Rs500 a month, I’ll probably have just five girls out of 20 come the next day," says Satam.

Lack of financial support from families also prompts him to approach local corporators, businessmen and friends and relatives to sponsor T-shirts, pants, bats and gloves.

“I am grateful to sir for all his help. If not for him, I would have never been able to own a cricket kit and play," says 15-year-old Rutuja Aadhav. “My conservative grandparents are against me going to different places to play."

The frequent fights at home compel her parents to pressure her to quit. They are reluctant to spend on her chosen sport. “They worry that if I get severely injured while playing, no nice boy would want to marry me."

Injury is one tricky area that most coaches have to grapple with. “Girls are more sensitive to injuries as most of them get oriented to sports a lot later than boys in our country and hence are not used to the hardships on the ground," says Sanjay Kondhalkar, the Maharashtra team coach.

Working on fitness is a key component of training. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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Working on fitness is a key component of training. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

He often has had to counsel players and their parents to take injury in their stride and also teach, along with female physiotherapists, different ways to deal with an injury.

“In specially organized sessions for parents, we often educate them about the importance of sports and how this training will benefit their girls in the long run and improve their overall health," says Gaitonde.

Even those playing at the state level have to be educated about the right fitness regime and food. As compared to boys, the overall awareness among girls is lacking. Funds allocated are minimal as well.

Satam usually gets his nutritionist and fitness instructor friends to guide the girls on a pro-bono basis and Kondhalkar, along with his team, keeps a strict watch on the girls’ diets, at least when they are training. “When they get back home, we usually don’t have any control over what they eat and do, but it’s usually seen that their fitness levels are lagging once they resume after a long break," says Pooja Kulkarni, physiotherapist for the Maharashtra team.

The main culprits are insufficient funds to maintain a high-protein diet and the long breaks.

If, on an average, boys play 50 matches a year, girls play only 10. “They just don’t get enough practice and exposure," says Kulkarni.

Most matches are played from October to May. There is a lull during the monsoon. Fitness training also takes a back seat as there aren’t enough indoor facilities across the country.

To work around this problem, coaches organize friendly matches with junior boys to ensure more practice and help girls better their skills. “As men have played cricket for so many more years, their cricket is more evolved," says Rambir Singh, the Haryana team’s coach. “Playing with boys teaches girls the best practices of the game and also builds a competitive spirit."

Sometimes there just aren’t enough girls in a squad. At times like these, coaches make a mixed team of girls and boys. “This regularly happens at school and college levels. You can’t ignore girls and their practice only because they are less in number," says Satam.

Teaching techniques and attitudes on the field also requires a different approach. “As the physical contact is limited, a coach has to not just demonstrate the correct stance and body posture, but also physically demonstrate the mistakes made by a player," says Kondhalkar.

Another must-have for a women’s coach is patience and a bag full of tricks to build trust. “One can’t yell at them like one can in boys’ practice sessions. A one-to-one conversation works better with girls. Even off field, one has to constantly work at trust-building and create a family-like environment. We often plan team outings to break the ice," says Kondhalkar.

One another hurdle is the unsuitable dressing, especially in smaller states. “New players often walk into grounds in skirts, frock and salwar kameez," says Reddy. They were also clueless about how to manage menstrual bleeding. “I had to seek a senior player or a woman manager’s help to train the girls to dress appropriately and be prepared to play any day of the month. This was the trickiest part. I always had to (ensure) no one felt awkward."

While many of the above problems persist, the overall awareness and acceptance of women’s cricket has grown exponentially.

Come October, the MCA plans to kick-start club-level tournaments for women. The Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association built a state-of-the-art women’s only academy in Dharamshala in 2015 and the BCCI is taking many women’s team under its wing.

The results are visible. Our girls made it to the finals this year, which many say is the turning point for women’s cricket in India. It sure is and it’s built on the collective efforts of women who toiled hard and men who walked alongside them as their guides and mentors.

“As a kid, when I started playing, my father was my first coach. When I started taking professional training during my second year of engineering, my father told me that, on field, your coach is your father, mother and everything! You must listen to them and respect them always," says Shikha Pandey, who played for India in the World Cup.

“I have always believed that a good coach is someone who can bring out the best in you! They don’t necessarily change much, they believe in your natural talent and just tweak your technique a little to help you get improved results. The game and the player are two dimensions; a good coach brings in the third. And a 3D movie is better than 2D."

Kalpana thinks similarly. “Hard work, passion and focus are important, but that’s not enough for a girl’s sports career in India," she says. “Even after I started playing state-level matches, my parents didn’t think I was doing anything substantial with my life. Only when they saw me on TV and our neighbours came over to congratulate them, they smiled. That was the happiest day of my life."

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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