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Monday, July 24, 2017

Watching the women's world cup: of wagon wheels and multiple screens

The big season is over for the women in blue. They've had more attention from audiences in India than in all the time they've been playing, forty years or more...not in blue, of course, but in the good old whites. Despite the heartbreaking finish, they come home sheroes, having displayed remarkable spirit and doing something few women's team sports have been able to do in our country--getting prime time coverage on a major network. For the whole tournament, no less.

For me, this season--as has been every season the women have played over the past twelve years--was a poignant reminder of a child's unfulfilled dream. I'm sure there are thousands of parents--maybe millions--who feel the same, but I can only talk about myself. And perhaps it is because of this that I--all of us in the family--pay more attention to the game than we would have otherwise.

Each year, from September till February, the BCCI runs the sparse season for women's cricket. The senior women play the inter-state matches in Plate and Elite groups, then the two top teams from each group play the super leagues. This happens for the one-day series and again the T20 series. The zonal team is picked based on performances in these matches, and the five zones play a series of 3-day matches against each other. Those who perform well through this short season are selected for the Challengers--a three-team playoff that throws up the players for the Indian team, the fifteen women who will represent the country. It's a season filled with hope and excitement for the players--and their families. Through the season, there are few headlines and fewer photo-ops. If you get mentioned in a scorecard in a tiny item under "Sports Round up", you're lucky. Even when there are headlines--as for instance, when Smriti Mandhana scored a century in the match against the West Indies--not many pay attention. It was telling that a young man who said he was a "cricket enthusiast" and had been playing at the state level for several years reacted with an "I have no idea" when he was asked to identify her.

Little surprise then that until this ICC World Cup in England, the only names that were somewhat familiar to Indian audiences were those of Jhulan Goswami and Mithali Raj. You had to reach that level of play, and records on the world scale, to achieve public visibility. With this World Cup, we know a few more names, but give it a few months, most people will be hard put to match those names to faces.

So every year, when my daughter plays in the inter-state tournaments (she's been fortunate to be part of the Hyderabad Senior Women for several years now, and the U-19 and sub-juniors before that), the entire household logs on to bcci.tv to follow the live updates. Her two grandmothers keep their iPad screens ready to follow the ball-by-ball progress, and if Ananya is bowling, they don't budge. I keep my phone browser open even as I drive, as I don't want to miss a trick during my long commute. If she happens to play in Hyderabad, we join the scraggly band of parents and former players who show up at the ground. Some seasons are better than others, and each year, there's a tiny bit of hope--maybe Zonals this year? Maybe the Challengers? When she was picked for India A in 2015, we travelled to Bangalore to watch her open the bowling in the practice match against New Zealand. Soon after, she began writing about the game, peppering her stories with analytical insights and an insider's grasp of detail. But the writing is a far second to playing, and covering the very games she dreams of being a part of is...not easy.

So watching the Women's World Cup live on television, as they played in front of record crowds, seemed like an extension of our engagement with Ananya's game. Many of the playing eleven were for us familiar names and faces, some friends, and many of whom had been opponents on the field. So the connect was intensely personal. And it was something to watch Ananya watching. During the play-offs, on days when there were four simultaneous games, she watched them all. Apart from the live telecast of the India game, she accessed the web stream on her laptop, smartphone, and a device borrowed from one of us at home. Notebooks open, a pack of pens of a dozen different colours for her detailed field drawings. And those wagon wheels--which to my un-sporty eyes look indecipherably technical.

Since the World Cup final, many have commented on how watching the Indian women's gritty performance has inspired many more girls to play, and maybe even given many more parents the confidence to let them play--seriously. But let me warn you, it's a tough journey--for the child and for the parent. For every Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana--not to mention Mithali and Jhulan--there are hundreds of others whose dreams may not be realised in full, and who will keep those dreams alive on the scores of dusty fields, in small and big towns, in inter-college and inter-district matches, in the inter-state and super league tournaments. In the hope that one day, they will wear the blue jersey and don that monogrammed cap.

And some will fill the margins of waiting with words...and wagon wheels.




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