Little children in white shirts, with cricket bats peeping out of gigantic kit bags, travelling in one of the city’s numerous local trains: At every station, a new story is born. And it isn’t just boys — there are girls as well who have an eye out for a Kashmir willow; a poster of Anjum Chopra, the former India cricketer, tacked onto their bedroom wall rather than one of the reigning superstar/musician of the day.
This is a good time for women’s cricket. After winning a historic T20I series against Australia last month, the squad is gearing up for the Women’s World Twenty20, which kicks off here on March 15. The team will be captained by Mithali Raj.
They may not enjoy the kind of fame or success their male counterparts do, but the Eves, from 2000-2009, have been making it to the last four stage of the World Cup. They even finished runners-up in 2005.
Nooshin Al Khadeer, one of the leading spinners on the field, told us how passion for the sport overruled monetary interests for women cricketers like her.
“Money was never there in (our) minds, it was just passion. But we had to spend a lot from our side on the kit and other requirements. We came second in the world (in 2005). It gave us recognition and I am proud of that,” said Nooshin, the most economical bowler (10-0-35-0) in the final against Australia at SuperSport Park, Centurion (South Africa) in 2005.
The year 2005 had the women’s team enjoying their golden run. Soon, they were brought under the governance of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). “The situation became better after BCCI took over,” said Nooshin.
“Match fees increased, the girls’ travel itinerary became more convenient. Now, the players stay in good hotels. In our times, we stayed in two-star hotels.”
“What they are earning is still peanuts compared to the men’s team but at least, something is happening. We only earned in international matches,” added Nooshin, who bagged 100 wickets in 78 One Day Internationals (ODI), 14 wickets in five Tests in her 10-year career.
Nooshin, who is now coaching U-19 kids in Hyderabad, also spoke highly of Mithali Raj, the current India skipper: “When I started, I admired Anil Kumble for his grit. Mithali is an inspiration for women cricketers all over the world. People also look up to Jhulan Goswami. These two have been the pillars,” she added.
Sponsorship, TV and physical power
Nooshin called for telecast of women’s cricket matches and sponsorships. “Though Mithali is seen in few commercials but we need more women to be seen in advertisements. As far as television coverage is concerned, the Aussies and English girls have live telecast no matter where they play,” she pointed out.
The former off-break bowler also discussed methods to be physically stronger to bear the brunt of the sport. “A woman’s weakest part is the legs. We are now looking to strengthen the lower half. The U-19 team has bowlers who can bowl a few bouncers. We never had that earlier,” she said.
Mithali — the phenomenon
The brightest star in Indian women’s cricket got into the sport quite accidentally. Her brother was being trained, but it was Mithali Raj who reaped the benefit. “When she was a baby, she used to cry as soon as she woke up. So I used to take her along with my son to the camp. She would sleep there, wake up whenever she felt like it and observe the activities,” recounted Dorai Raj, Mithali’s father.
Mithali’s brother wasn’t serious about cricket, so he stopped once he reached Class 10, but that marked her start in the sport. “She used to watch the training sessions and one day, Jyoti Prasad (the South Zone player from Hyderabad), saw her throw the ball and told me she could be tried out,” he recalled.
“She started in 1992 and by 1997, she was in the World Cup, probably at the age of 14. Earlier, she didn’t know anything about cricket. She never had role models. She was a Bharatnatyam dancer,” Dorai added.
Mithali is the proud recipient of a Padma Shri and an Arjuna award. She has 5,199 runs in 160 ODIs, five hundreds and 39 half-centuries at 49.04. Her Test average is 51.00 and she also has a double hundred (214) to her name. In the T20 format, she scored 1,356 runs at 35.68 with seven half-centuries.
Young guns, coaches and new shots
Rahul Dravid is not only the coach of the India U-19 team, his approach towards the game has been almost therapeutic for young cricketers.
For instance, Walesha Bharti, a 20-year-old from Ahmedabad who lives in Mumbai for her cricket commitments “consumes” Dravid’s methods daily.
“More than his cricket, I liked his calm approach while scoring runs. I took to cricket after I watched him on television. I also keep wickets like he did apart from batting,” she told us.
Walesha trains at Indian Gymkhana (Matunga) under Bhavana Patil and Surekha Bhandare. Surekha has been the anchor of Mumbai women’s cricket for decades. The 65-year-old is a Shiv Chhatrapati Award winner. On the other hand, Bhavana — the head coach of Cricket India Academy — holds a Cricket Australia Level 1 certificate for coaching.
Modern-day cricket changed with the arrival of T20 and the Indian Premier League (IPL). A new breed of shots rule the roost these days and young cricketers, including the women, are eager to try these out at the nets.
“We try switch hits, paddle sweeps and scoops. We even try short balls and bouncers. A woman’s shoulder isn’t that strong but we keep trying,” said Walesha, a student of Guru Nanak Khalsa College, currently playing U-23 for Gujarat.
T20 is the new glamour in the cricketing world and it is to be noted that the Indian women had success in the shortest format before the men. So while the Men in Blue, under Virender Sehwag’s captaincy, beat South Africa by six wickets in their first ever T20 outing in December 2006, the Eves, led by Mithali, overcame England by eight wickets in August 2006.
And the Indian women’s team looks sleek for the upcoming ICC World T20 after their maiden T20 series triumph (2-1) against three-time world champion Australia in their own backyard. Success in the mega event could bring in a parallel IPL for women.
"I still remember watching Anjum Chopra bat. The women’s team is working hard, one can take an example out of their recent T20 series win in Australia. Every woman, be it a cricketer or a housewife, deserve special attention. Smriti Mandhana’s ton in Hobart was terrific. When I get time, I love to watch her bat." — Ishan Kishan, India U-19 skipper
Fees and coaches
"It varies from Rs 300 to Rs 500 per month in Mumbai. At times, it is also free of cost. The regular cricketers train at Bandra-Kurla Complex in the indoor facilities under Mumbai Cricket Association.
One can pay as less as Rs 80 per month just to play cricket at Indian Gymkhana. The girls are taking it to the next level. Even during monsoons, they come and train. Kalpana Murkar – daughter of renowned coach Ramakant Achrekar – trains kids at Shivaji Park (Dadar)." — Bhavana Patil, coach
"With the ICC World T20 knocking at the door, India is a package. Players are easily clearing boundaries and chasing big scores. Do watch out for Harmanpreet Kaur, Thirush Kamini and Veda Krishnamurthy." — Nooshin Al Khadeer, former India player
Eves in the last decade
World T20: Semi-finalists (2009), Semi-finalists (2010)
World Cup: Semi-finalists (2000), Runners up (2005), Third place (2009)
Asia Cup: Four-time champions (2004, 2005, 2006, 2008)