January 1978. Opener Shobha Mundkur, then 21, was travelling by train with her teammates to Patna for the third match of the second Women’s World Cup. Mundkur went by her maiden name, Pandit, back then; in the years to come, her fans would fondly call her Panditji. But, in 1978, there she was, a girl from Pune, in a third-class train compartment with unreserved tickets. “That particular day, I had the World Cup trophy with me. I think that was the reason why people offered me a place to sit. Otherwise, even that much wouldn’t have happened," says Mundkur, now 63, over the phone from Pune.

The line crackles with laughter as she remembers. “I was handed the trophy for safekeeping because I was the opener, I suppose. An opener is very quiet, introverted. They knew I wouldn’t fiddle with it."

That moment is perhaps the closest that the 1978 Indian women’s team got to keeping the World Cup trophy. In the history of Indian cricket, 1978 has slipped through the cracks, possibly because of India’s unremarkable performance. There were no amazing feats with the bat or ball, nor a catch that would be immortalized in print. The decisive match at the Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium in Hyderabad was between Australia and England. India had lost each of its three matches: England bowled out India for 63; New Zealand won by nine wickets; and Australia defeated India by 71 runs. On home turf, India’s campaign petered out with a whimper.

It is logical, therefore, that the World Cup is remembered for another reason. This was the first time the country hosted an international cricket championship. Six teams, including India, were originally supposed to play the tournament, but the Netherlands and West Indies withdrew on account of financial difficulties. That left four teams to compete in a round-robin format in a multi-city series—matches were played in Kolkata, Patna, Hyderabad and Jamshedpur.

CUTTING THEIR TEETH

For the pioneering Indian team, not winning a single game in this World Cup was hardly cause for despondency. It isn’t even a bitter memory. For that matter, many who played don’t even seem to recollect all the details. One may remember hard-won victories and heart-breaking losses, but this World Cup featured neither. Yet in the absence of commemorations—official or personal—there is a need to reconsider the importance of the 1978 World Cup, to put together a jigsaw puzzle of hazy memories and hard facts.

It would be nearly a decade after 1978 before the country would host its first men’s Cricket World Cup. In many ways, the 1978 Women’s World Cup was ahead of its time, paving the way for better performances in international championships. In 1997, the next time that India hosted the Women’s World Cup, the team would make the semi-finals for the first time. They repeated this feat in the next edition, hosted by New Zealand. In South Africa, in 2005, they reached the final. It is worth remembering that the first cricket World Cup ever held was for the women’s teams. England inaugurated it in 1973 with seven teams—two years before the first edition of the men’s Cricket World Cup would be organized.

Senior sports writer Sharda Ugra says that because India hosted its first men’s World Cup in 1987, people don’t always remember that the Women’s World Cup was held earlier. “They were ahead of what the men were going to do. Women’s achievements in sports, like we see with female scientists, haven’t been recognized enough. There certainly needs to be a formal recognition, not financially alone, but an inclusion of their names in the history of the game. The men’s game has celebrated its oldest players, but the conversations around the women’s game are like this: Who are they to earn so much money?"

Journalist Suprita Das, who has written about the 1978 tournament in her book Free Hit: The Story Of Women’s Cricket In India (2018), says, “India was decided as the host for the tournament simply because more people would come watch the matches." India hosted the World Cup to attract its cricket-crazy fans to fill up stadiums and put on a good show. However, to players like Mundkur, it meant more than just a game of numbers.

She recalls walking into Kolkata’s Eden Gardens to bat against England for India’s first match of the tournament, and noticing the difference from playing in an empty stadium. “With every cheer, it was almost like they were patting us and telling us that we were doing the right thing. I had goosebumps walking into the ground."

Some people were also there, says Mundkur, to observe the sartorial choices of the teams. India and West Indies were the first teams to play in trousers. It seemed practical, a way to deal with sunburn and bruises as much as to play what was perceived as a man’s game. Rajeshwari Dholakia Antani, a member of the 1978 squad, remembers the way England, Australia and New Zealand fielded in their divided skirts, with high socks, knees exposed. “They would scrape their knees pretty badly, but I don’t think they cared about that one bit," says Antani over the phone from the US, where she now lives, training young children in cricket. England, incidentally, switched to trousers only in 1997.

Diana Edulji captained the Indian team in the 1978 World Cup. She is a recognizable figure in the cricketing world, a member of the Supreme Court-appointed committee of administrators at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and an outspoken voice in the women’s game. In 1978, she was 22 and working as a junior clerk for Western Railway. “We weren’t expected to perform well and we didn’t have much hope ourselves. We were new to ODIs (One Day Internationals), and we were young players," she recalls.

Edulji was one of the senior members of the team; the others were far younger, some fresh out of high school. Cricket was played while juggling school and board exams, squeezing in study hours in between training camps. This meant that the team remained largely a fluid one. Leg-spinner Shubhangi Kulkarni, or Shubhu as the team called her, recalls playing her first international game, a Test match against the West Indies in 1976, which began a few months before her SSC exams. “My parents didn’t allow me for earlier matches in Delhi and Kolkata in 1975 on account of my studies. Being away from home also meant we got a bit of freedom from our folks."

The women came from different corners of the country. Kulkarni used to play cricket with the “colony boys" and represented Maharashtra in the hockey nationals. In their book, The Fire Burns Blue: A History Of Women’s Cricket In India (2018), writers Karunya Keshav and the late Sidhanta Patnaik narrate how Kulkarni debuted as India’s secret weapon in the 1976 Test match against the West Indies and had the full confidence of the first captain of the Indian team, Shantha Rangaswamy.

Kulkarni, now 59, is an Arjuna Award winner and till very recently was part of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC’s) women’s cricket committee. She says the reason why India lost had little to do with incompetence. She remembers her team as a confident one with great skills to show in Test matches. “Most of the games were low-scoring when you compare it to today. Scoring 150 or 175 was considered good enough," she says.

Members of the Indian contingent at a function during the 2009 Women’s World Cup in Sydney: (from left) coach Sudha Shah, captain Jhulan Goswami, vice-captain Amita Sharma and manager Shubhangi Kulkarni.
Members of the Indian contingent at a function during the 2009 Women’s World Cup in Sydney: (from left) coach Sudha Shah, captain Jhulan Goswami, vice-captain Amita Sharma and manager Shubhangi Kulkarni.

What they lacked was not skill but the requisite fitness levels for ODIs—thedifference between a marathon and a sprint. The other three teams in the World Cup were clearly superior in many respects. They had about a decade’s worth of playing experience, and were physically stronger, and were familiar with the limited-overs format, having participated in the first World Cup in 1973.

“One could say that technically, we were as sound as any foreign country. What worked against us was our inexperience and lack of physio training or even a single sponsor," says Gargi Banerji, 55, another member of the 1978 team. Their version of a breakfast-of-champions, she points out, was two slices of bread, one boiled egg and one banana. Later, in 1988, the Indian team had to miss the World Cup in Australia, when it could not raise enough money from sponsors.

Despite all this, the team wasn’t deterred and went in knowing fully well what they were up against. The former cricketers don’t remember feeling demotivated in the face of successive losses. Because the odds were stacked against them, it meant that only the serious ones stayed on. “We played because we were passionate about the game and because we wanted to play for the country," says Banerji, who made her international debut in the match against England as a 14-year-old.

Gargi Banerji at her home in Kolkata
Gargi Banerji at her home in Kolkata

Ugra says that even if the Indian team had won, there wouldn’t have been a huge celebration. “It’s very reflective of that time," she says. “The spectators weren’t hankering for a victory as a tool for self-respect or national image; there was no chanting or jingoism in the stadiums."

Demanding their dues

Though cricket had been introduced for women in India by the English and Parsis in the early 20th century, a national team was formed only in 1973, after the establishment of the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI). Before their first World Cup, India’s national team had already played official Test matches against the West Indies and New Zealand.

Captain Rangaswamy scored 108 against New Zealand in the Dunedin Test match of 1977; Kulkarni had match figures of seven wickets for 57 runs in what was then the most memorable victory in Indian women’s cricket.This was in the Test match against the West Indies, held in Patna in 1976, which India won by five wickets. It’s a match the players remember well. The team had proved to be a worthwhile opponent in the international arena.

In terms of cricketing experience, by 1978 the team was already in its adolescence, rebelliousness included. Edulji remembers “the big Patna incident". She is not referring to the win against the West Indies, but the World Cup match against Australia. Writing for the now-discontinued Sportsweek in 1978, foreign correspondent Pauline Bunce, who also served as assistant manager for the Australian team, said, “The height of (WCAI’s) early euphoria was in October 1976, when a record 70,000 people saw India defeat the West Indies at Patna. This wave of success has now turned and the sport is in danger of being drowned in debt. What happened?"

The 1978 tournament was held in an era when players largely paid from their own pockets to play. “This was the case not just in 1978 but even later. It was one big jugaad, as we say," says Das. The girls would sponsor their own travel and accommodation. Their kits were often self-funded and they shared bats with each other. There was the noticeable absence, in hindsight, of a sponsor for the World Cup, though it was overseen by the WCAI. In many ways, Ugra believes, both men and women were just expected to play for the country and not for money. It was the norm, not the exception. “This was before the age of professionalism. You were expected to have a job and play on the side. Even footballers weren’t expected to play the game full-time," she says.

“We were paying from our pockets till the Patna match against Australia. We decided that we wouldn’t play any more until we were, at the very least, reimbursed for miscellaneous payments like train fare," recollects Edulji, 63. The team stuck to its stand ahead of the match against Australia at the Moin-ul-Haq stadium. The Bihar government cabinet secretary, Edulji says, quickly met the senior players of the team and assured them that their payments would come soon. “He even offered a personal cheque. But we knew that it wouldn’t be good enough. Whose account would it go into? For that matter, we didn’t even have bank accounts," she says.

The tension between management and players was palpable. The official explained to them that women’s cricket would suffer or that riots could start if there was a last-minute cancellation of the match. “When we didn’t budge, he finally said that they would collect cash from the ticket sales of the day to reimburse us. He asked us to hold on till then and not walk away," recalls Edulji. The team was reimbursed with only minutes left to go for the match. The game went off with no hiccups. There was no question of match fees being paid in those days, Edulji adds.

In another piece for Sportsweek, Bunce interviewed Rangaswamy, who was not part of the 1978 World Cup team. Bunce writes that one of the most common questions that arose after the tournament was this: Where was Rangaswamy? The 1976 Arjuna Award winner was conspicuously absent, that is true, but not because she was unavailable, wrote Bunce.

It is likely that the feisty Rangaswamy wasn’t selected for the World Cup precisely because of her feistiness. She wasn’t called for the selection camps and a new job at Canara Bank made it all the more difficult for her. In that 1978 interview, Rangaswamy deplores the poor treatment meted out to players, stating that the least they expected was assistance befitting a national team. “Don’t treat us like small kids, after all we are the ones promoting the game. Our motto is ‘Protect and Promote’. We put the sport on the map and we cannot sit back and watch it die," she was quoted as saying in that article.

Rangaswamy was acommentator for the final in Hyderabad, where the bank had posted her. The stadium was but half full, she tells Lounge, and it lacked “the customary M.K. Sharma flair".

The long road to recognition

Today, Indian women’s cricket has come a long way. The old hatchets have been buried and the current generation of players is undoubtedly famous. However, the Indian national team’s beginnings were under difficult circumstances, as the story of World Cup 1978 shows.

The story of the early days would not be complete without the figure of Mahendra Kumar Sharma, a softball and handball tournament organizer. Once, on a trip for a national softball meet, the women players he was with started playing cricket on a railway platform with a softball bat. This inspired Sharma to set up the WCAI in Lucknow in 1973. Women’s cricket in India was never the same after that.

Mahendra Sharma with what is possibly the World Cup trophy from 1978, surrounded by some of the players. Courtesy Rajeshwari Dholakia Antani
Mahendra Sharma with what is possibly the World Cup trophy from 1978, surrounded by some of the players. Courtesy Rajeshwari Dholakia Antani

Once the WCAI was formed, things took off really quickly. “Mahendra saw that to take women’s cricket to the next level, to showcase the talent and to be noticed, we had to play internationally. His vision was very clear and he made sure that the players got the publicity they needed," says Kulkarni, who also served as WCAI secretary from 2003-06 and was the first convener of BCCI’s women’s committee.

Despite the complaints against its functioning, there is no doubt that the WCAI was responsible for the birth of women’s cricket in India. Sharma would take it upon himself to put together a corpus for the games through his contacts, and often out of his own pocket. He also decided that a fund-raiser would do the trick, one that brought together the country’s two great loves—Bollywood and cricket. A friendly match between film stars, such as Vinod Khanna, and the young women cricketers was held in Pune in 1975. As a treat for winning the Patna Test against the West Indies, Sharma took the cricketers from Patna to Delhi to meet the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, on her birthday. It was the first time the team boarded a plane.

The teams pose with prime minister Indira Gandhi during the Australia Under-25 tour to India in 1975
The teams pose with prime minister Indira Gandhi during the Australia Under-25 tour to India in 1975

After the 1978 World Cup, Sharma ended not just his association with the WCAI, but with cricket in general. He quit his position as secretary soon after the tournament. After his resignation, he married Kulkarni’s sister, the hockey player Vijaya, that year.

Bunce alleged that Sharma had become an “autocrat", a godfather who left the WCAI in debts that ran up to lakhs of rupees. In another article for Sportsweek, she lists a litany of woes, with Sharma at their centre, right from the unavailability of hot water in the hotels the players were put up in to the lack of sightseeing opportunities. The highlight of her criticism was that the WCAI didn’t publish a souvenir programme, about which she wrote: “(It) is indicative of the fact that no one in their right mind would want to remember it (the 1978 World Cup)." The conspicuous absence of souvenirs, memorabilia or even photographs from the World Cup is, in fact, quite striking.

The WCAI was merged with the BCCI in 2006. Das says that the BCCI took women’s cricket under its wing only because the ICC mandated it. All the competing nations were supposed to implement this by 2005, but the BCCI kept stalling the merger on the grounds that organizational issues and conduct of tournaments would have to be understood first. The ICC offered the BCCI a year’s extension, but also said that if the merger didn’t happen, there was a possibility that the women’s team would lose its place in the international game. “India was the last country to provide professional contracts to women players," Das says, adding that India implemented it in 2013, two years after Pakistan. Before contracts, the Indian players were paid only on an ad-hoc basis.

It didn’t necessarily lead to an immediate improvement in women’s cricket. “Money laundering and politicking were going on in the WCAI but the women were playing more tournaments. In the early days, they managed to organize domestic tournaments so that talent nurturing and talent showcasing could happen. The BCCI held more camps and fewer matches because it was reluctant to take the women’s team under its wing. Things have changed only in the last four years, in the lead-up to the 2017 World Cup and later," Das saysC

A ticket from the Australia-India match of the 1978 World Cup. Courtesy Shobha Mundkur
A ticket from the Australia-India match of the 1978 World Cup. Courtesy Shobha Mundkur

In the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup, India were the runners-up in the finalagainst England. In the semi-final, Harmanpreet Kaur’s swashbuckling innings of 171 ensured that Australia lost—for the first time in Women’s World Cup history—to India. Mithali Raj, captain of the current Test and ODI teams, says the situation today is much improved. However, there is some way to go still for the woman’s game. “At the domestic level, the payment is not at the level of the men’s Ranji players but it is a work in progress; with the coming of the Women’s IPL (Indian Premier League), that situation should improve," Raj says.

Progress, she believes, will be slow but sure. “Things like player contracts and match fees are in place, but there is still room. In a few years, I think we will get to a situation where women’s cricket will be highly marketable and we will slowly get to the level of other international sports."

Harmanpreet Kaur during her unbeaten innings of 171 during the 2017 World Cup semi-final against Australia
Harmanpreet Kaur during her unbeaten innings of 171 during the 2017 World Cup semi-final against Australia

“In 1978, the women players were almost like guardians of the game. They challenged authority and fought for what they deserved. Today, the stakes are higher and challenging the power structure is more difficult," says Ugra. Most of the pioneering team receives only a modest pension, starting at around 10,000 per month, unless they are part of cricket committees.

Mundkur says that despite their underwhelming performance in the 1978 World Cup, the team was invited to watch the final between England and Australia in Hyderabad. “Watching them play, we got many tips on how to play better. What was great about that time is that we got to watch good cricket."

There are not many photographs of India’s moment at its first Women’s World Cup, but the squad has some tucked away. On social media, Antani often posts from her collection, not just to reminisce with her friends but also in the hope that people will learn about that trailblazing bunch of cricketers. Through her collection, it is possible to form a picture of those young girls who marched out to prepare a level playing field for cricket in this country. Some can be seen wearing double-plaits, ribbons in their hair, their eyes squinting in the harsh sun.

Antani can barely control her laughter when she points to one photograph in particular, in which Sharma holds what is possibly the World Cup trophy, surrounded by some members of the team, including herself. It is a candid moment. For a lark, Antani cropped the photograph to make it look like the Indian team was being awarded the World Cup trophy.

(left) The teams pose with prime minister Indira Gandhi during the Australia Under-25 tour to India in 1975; and Gargi Banerji at her home in Kolkata.
(left) The teams pose with prime minister Indira Gandhi during the Australia Under-25 tour to India in 1975; and Gargi Banerji at her home in Kolkata.
Close