Girls Play In Darkness

Girls Play In Darkness

The IPL promotes women as cheerleaders and presenters. Meanwhile, women’s cricket in the country continues to thrive in neglect.

It has been eight years since the inception of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and inspite of this, the narrative around it has not changed. The purist views it condescendingly for turning cricket into a farce while the cynic bashes it for being a heady cocktail of all things evil. The only reason they make peace with the IPL is because at some level, they believe that the tournament “is a great platform for young cricketing talent in India.”

While there is some truth in the statement that the IPL is a ‘launching pad for young cricketing talent in India’, I do not entirely agree with it because the IPL as a property tends to ignore a certain segment of the young cricketing talent: the women cricketers.

“That’s not for girls”, a line used frequently in our society where marriage is still seen as the ultimate social achievement for a woman and deviations from traditionally defined gender roles is frowned upon and neglected, it is not hard to imagine the plight of women cricketers. Hence, despite India having had a history of fine women cricketers, right from the great yesteryears spinner Diana Edulji to the technically-accomplished bats person Mithali Raj and medium fast bowler Jhulan Goswami, the handful of followers of women’s cricket are forced to tell the remaining millions that Raj and Goswami play for the country and have remarkable records too.

The IPL and talent-spotting walk hand in hand; yet, the only women seen in association are attractive television show presenters and cheerleaders. If anything, the property only reinforces the primitive notions of the gender stereotype, which is a crime.

While the stereotype continues to get promoted, what about those girls who play cricket just as passionately as men do? They need to deal with social questions and criticisms that accrue from their decision to step into a territory which has traditionally been owned by men. Consider the case of Vinayshree Khurana who played cricket for Punjab University.  She was “advised by mohalla aunties not to play with boys as she was grown up” and she is just one of the many!

Such women cricketers also need to accept appalling levels of ignorance. Sneha Rose Chacko, a Delhi state player, for example remembers how “people were always taken aback when they got to know that girls play cricket too!” Their first question being – “you play with a leather ball or tennis ball?” Strange, isn’t it? Certainly, but then truth has the ability to surprise very often.

This prejudice not only embraces cricket but encompasses almost every other form of competitive sport in India. The strong tie between masculinity and elite athleticism has translated into slow growth of female participation in competitive sports, the corresponding lack of opportunities and funding for women’s teams has only worsened the situation.

All the young women cricketers I spoke to, tell similar stories. They got hooked on to a sport they grew up watching and started playing with the boys in the “gully”. Their families encouraged them to play and amidst shock and opposition from society in general, they trained hard, they went on to represent their universities, states and eventually quit the sport once they realised they were “heading towards nowhere”.

It is in this context that the IPL becomes interesting. While the young male cricketers get exposure and financial stability through the property, their female counterparts get nothing out of this marquee event created by the board. This happens because the IPL draws a rigid line of demarcation between gender roles by limiting the participation of women to non-playing activities. The property dresses up its sexist ideas in the garb of pseudo-modernity and entertainment, which doesn’t make its endorsement of social segregation any less shameful. This happens, while the real thing, women’s cricket, continues to wage a lonely battle.

So how do young women cricketers look at the IPL? During our chat, Anupriya Singh, a former state-level cricketer, stated her “indifferent” attitude towards the IPL because she considers herself a purist and would rather watch Test cricket. However, she understands that,

“In terms of offering young upcoming cricketers a steady stream of income and a respectable standard of living, the IPL has changed cricket forever. At least, boys don’t have to choose between a career in cricket or one in academics anymore.”

Singh’s disillusionment is perfectly understandable, since even B-level cricketers who manage to get a good deal at the auctions a few times manage to secure their future- an option a woman cricketer doesn’t have because women’s cricket is hardly a lucrative career at this particular time.

Vinayshree feels that the IPL’s “adverse impact is more since it pushes the women cricketers further into oblivion as the mind space of a cricket fan is constantly occupied by the male players.” When a major woman’s cricket match is underway and so is an IPL season, whatever chances the former might have had of getting reported in the media practically disappears, which doesn’t help matters.

During my chat with these girls, not once did I sense any animosity towards the property itself. What I did sense, however, was their general disappointment with the board for not giving the women cricketers a platform to showcase their talent and make a living. Sneha Chacko feels that,

“If something like the IPL comes up for women’s cricket then it will be a big boon since lack of matches throughout the year and also family pressure (due to poor monetary benefits) are major factors which affect the players. Also, players will stand a chance to gain exposure which will only encourage more girls to take up cricket as a profession.”

In a country where few people can name five women cricketers, it will not make commercial sense for the board to float a full-fledged women’s T20 league. However, the BCCI could be a torchbearer and introduce widely promoted women’s cricket matches as a starting point. This one move could have multiple benefits right from turning cricket into a viable career option for girls to creating women superstars in the game. If India has quality women’s cricketers which it does, highlighting their performances and having many more matches for them can stimulate the curiosity of a cricket-hungry nation.

Most girls who play cricket have reconciled to the reality that they are living in a man’s world. All they want is some respect, encouragement and an opportunity to make a living from something that they are passionate about. They have been at the receiving end of step-motherly treatment for a long time. This must change.

Vinayshree sums it up rather well,

“I have always heard these sentences –“Indians love their cricket and cricketers. Cricket is a religion and cricketers are Gods. I do not agree. Indians love their ‘male’ cricketers and love watching them play. I did not continue because it was not a viable career option. It could not even feed me. We played in poor conditions, we did not have coaches and there were hardly any opportunities because of which we were not even as good as a good junior boys team. Often, when we played and lost to a good junior boys team, I wondered why we couldn’t be trained that way. Even today, women’s cricket is not talked about in a nation which is supposedly crazy about the game.”

Time to change that maybe? Think about it.

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