Farokh Tarapore, the Indian Navy sailor who took part in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, said to me once: “Lifting the lid, that’s what Sania [Mirza] has done. She has lifted the lid when it comes to Indian sportswomen. She has shown that Indian girls can compete at the highest level. It was always true. But she has driven the truth home, in a popular sport. She has kicked the lid out.”
This was in 2007. Mirza was at a career-high No. 27 in singles tennis – the best she got to before losing her way somewhat, bogged down by injuries too, and turning to doubles in a more focussed way. Joshna Chinappa, the squash player, had started to make a name for herself around that time. Saina Nehwal was up and coming, slightly younger than Mirza and Chinappa but only a little way away from getting to the badminton quarterfinals at the 2008 Olympics.
Tarapore was talking about how the weightlifters and boxers and runners had been doing so much of the, well, heavy lifting (and punching and running) among Indian sportswomen. But those were not ‘glamorous’ sports; so, with Mirza lifting the lid in a more mainstream sport, there was a viable role model for young sports-minded girls in India.
Separately, while travelling around Bhiwani in Haryana to look at Indian boxing’s hotbed, I spoke to a host of young boxers and old coaches. The impact of Vijender Singh’s success was clear to see. This was in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympic Games. Vijender had won bronze in the 2008 edition. In 2012, seven boys – including Vijender – had qualified for the Olympics. Not all of them were from Haryana, and none of them had started boxing after 2008. But the hopes, aspirations still hinged on the Vijender Effect. At the academies, the number of young boys and girls had gone up by leaps and bounds.
I think Harmanpreet Kaur and, especially right now, Smriti Mandhana, can do exactly that with women’s cricket.
On my exercise walks around the apartment complex I live in, I have been seeing a slightly-built girl of around seven or eight getting throw-downs [that’s the new word for a ball being chucked at a batter from a standing position, no?] with a tennis ball from her father. The child, whose name I still don’t know, is an interesting one. She used to be quite tiny for her age, and while she has grown somewhat taller, she is still smaller than the other girls her age. But she spends most of her playing time with the building boys. Cricket and football, chiefly. Badminton too. Hard. Not one to sit around and chat, she runs a lot. Fast. Beautifully. Carelessly, but tirelessly.
Her father, an IT professional, informed me that she has been training at J Arunkumar’s cricket academy – not too far from where we live – for the past few months. And that the coaches there have told him that his daughter is good enough to at least make it to the state level one day. She loves sport, he explained. “I should give her a chance, shouldn’t I?” he asked, stopping mid-chuck to turn and look at me. Of course! The girl has a long, long way to go. Being small of stature isn’t a crisis in cricket, as the country’s biggest name in the game ever is proof of. She has natural athleticism. The cricket basics are a little off, even I can tell. It can be worked on, though. Not every great cricketer has been/is a natural.
Does she watch cricket, women’s cricket, I asked Mr IT Guy. He wasn’t sure. She watches cricket all right. But women’s cricket? It’s not on TV, is it? It is, sometimes, these days. Then she must be watching, he nodded. She watches as much as she can, apparently.
One of these days, I think I will chat with this young lady about Kaur and Mandhana (and Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami), the Women’s Big Bash League deals they struck, the runs they have scored, Kaur’s six and two off the last two balls of the Women’s World Cup Qualifier final at P Sara Oval in February 2017 and Mandhana’s 90 and 106 not out in the first two games of the 2017 Women’s World Cup.
I’m not an ace with kids. By the time we do end up chatting, perhaps Kaur and Mandhana would have done even more to talk about, and that should help.
We are most certainly at the highest point in women’s cricket ever. Compared to top-drawer men’s cricket, not yet there. Even this World Cup, the biggest to date in terms of prize money and coverage, isn’t a patch on the men’s World Cup. But, and this is important, the event is getting more attention with every edition. It has a much higher prize purse than ever before, some of it is on TV too, in the absence of much else in terms of cricket – the Windies tour can’t count, can it? There is a fair bit of media coverage too.
This could be the time to strike for women’s cricket.
And that’s where Kaur and Mandhana come in.
Raj and Goswami are still there – as big role models as Indian cricket, and not just women’s, can hope to get. There were others before them: Shantha Rangaswamy, Diana Edulji, Anju Jain, Purnima Rau among them. And there will be others going forward. Deepti Sharma, for starters – she isn’t even 20 yet. But, in the here and now, we have Kaur, 28 and some, and Mandhana, 21 in a few days.
Two young women. Among the best in the world. Modern, articulate and impressive. Potential role models.
If my young neighbour with boundless energy, with more than a passing interest in cricket and parents willing to give her a chance, can get the role models she needs: Young women scoring lots of runs (which has a bigger appeal than picking up wickets, unfortunately) and winning India matches, maybe Kaur and Mandhana would have lifted the lid too. For women’s cricket in India. Shoulder to shoulder with the biggest stars at the WBBL, earning good money, possibly holding aloft a big trophy or two …