The Ladies at Lord’s and Their New-found Devotees

Social Commentary

The Ladies at Lord’s and Their New-found Devotees

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

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s Eileen Ash, England’s oldest living women’s cricketer at 105, rang the match bell at the Lord’s Cricket Ground, the “home of cricket” found yet another mention in the annals of Indian Cricket history. We played our first ever Test match in 1932 on the same ground; then exactly half a century later, stunned the cricketing world into silence when a bunch of underdogs led by Kapil Dev trumped a seemingly invincible team from the Caribbean. About 20 years later, from the same balcony, emerged the Prince of Kolkata with his profound fondness for a Salman-esque display of bravado and a strong penchant for the word “fuck”. Every such moment at Lord’s had the innate capacity to change the way we played our cricket and fashioned the way we acted as a people.

On July 23, the clock was wired all the way again and we waited to see what would unfold.

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The 48th over, stalwart Jenny Gunn bowls her characteristic sleight-of-hand slower ball to Shikha Pandey as the majority-Indian-expat crowd cheers their team on. Narendra Modi and Sachin Tendulkar are live-tweeting while Akshay Kumar is in the stands on cheering-duty. Panic strikes. Pandey loses her cool and attempts a run that was hardly there. Run out, just like her captain before her, her head hangs in shame and the needle tilts slightly in England’s favour.

As Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur, and Jhulan Goswami bite their nails in anticipation, another wicket falls. Harakiri written all over it. Still nine runs short with one wicket in hand, the ball is lobbed to mid-on and Gunn settles under it only for the ball to pop straight in-then-out. Maybe there was some divine intervention to be had? Was this the call of destiny signalling what could have been?

Let’s leave that there and wind the clock back a few hours.

Sunday afternoons until last week were either India-Pakistan chest-thumping showdowns (cricket and hockey) or exasperating sighs at the sight of a certain brand of finely aged Swiss cheese called “Federer” at the Wimbledon. Up until Sunday, like the uncles from Chak De India, many among us might have thought “Yeh chakla belan chalaane waali bhartiya naariyan, kahan nikkar pehne khelne chali hain”.

But after a fairytale run at the Women’s World Cup, whole families have sat and watched the final with much anticipation and learnt the names of all the players along the way. There were questions here and there, of course, inquiring if the boundaries were shortened. Or if a high-school boy could easily thrash Jhulan Goswami’s tedious spells of slow-fast bowling. Twitter was abuzz, WhatsApp notifications kept wailing, signalling that an unprecedented instance had occurred: a packed ground and packed living rooms supporting the women in blue that perhaps changed the meaning of “bleed blue” altogether when sanitary napkin ads played after every over.

As our women marched onto Lord’s, they marched with a different kind of nation watching them back home – a nation whose collective attitude toward women in sport has taken a step in the right direction.

What changed? Well, you say. The ladies made it to the finals. Naturally the nation cheered. But hey, we’d been in the final 12 years ago as well. I don’t remember the nation breathing in tandem with the movements of the match then? What turned this Sunday? A friend came up to me a couple of years ago and said, “If you talk about Women’s Cricket, then you’re talking about Women’s Cricket and not actual Cricket.” His statement was not overtly misogynistic, but it captured what we felt about women playing a man’s game. Which is why perhaps the conversation about women’s cricket has largely been centred around exposure, identity, and overcoming their apparent anonymity.

Maybe it is the anonymity itself that changed. For the first time, the women’s cricket was on an equal footing compared to the men’s game in terms of viewership and coverage. Just like it takes a Sachin or a Dhoni to draw spectators out of her chair; it takes a Raj (highest run-scorer in ODI cricket) and a Goswami (highest wicket-tacker in ODI cricket) to shake up people like my dear friend. Their turn was a reminder that we were witnessing some high-calibre cricket, and not a shoddy event like before which said, “Haan, ab tum ladki log thoda khel lo”. The women’s game has grown considerably and is slowly inching towards a seamless divide between genders. If you watch a Harmanpreet straight drive, I’ll pay you good money to tell me how far removed it is from Yuvraj.

England v India: Final - ICC Women's World Cup 2017

The cricketers’ struggle is somewhat emblematic of the revival of the feminist movement in the last few years. It has asked questions about the wage gap, emancipation through involvement, and discrimination through the likes of Anjum Chopra and Jhulan Goswami who have championed the sport.

Stu Forster/Getty Images

The cricketers’ struggle is somewhat emblematic of the revival of the feminist movement in the last few years. It has asked questions about the wage gap, emancipation through involvement, and discrimination through the likes of Anjum Chopra and Mithali Raj who have championed the sport. They have also drawn attention to the strictly patriarchal system that governs it, much like the majority of our workplaces.

Maybe – do I dare say it? – this is an example of a woke nation. Maybe the way the conversation has changed in the last few years is slowly seeping down to women’s cricket as well. As our women marched onto Lord’s, they marched with a different kind of nation watching them back home – a nation whose collective attitude toward women in sport has taken a step in the right direction. A nation that has witnessed Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Dipa Karmakar, and Annu Rani perform miracles. A nation that has been taught Dangal-style “Mhaari chhoriyan chhoron se kam hain ke?” A nation that, most recently, fought with the Censor Board to watch a film highlighting women’s sexuality.

England v India: Final - ICC Women's World Cup 2017

After a fairytale run at the Women’s World Cup, whole families have sat and watched the Women’s World Cup final with much anticipation and learnt the names of all the players along the way.

IDI Contributor/Getty Images

Back to the 48th over. The nail biting hasn’t ceased.

Just nine runs away from the finishing line and Poonam is castled by a delivery that beats both bat and pad, hitting the timber – sending the English into laps of joy but burdening Mithali’s team with a loss that shall haunt them throughout their lives.

But something has shifted. Twitter is soon flooded with messages saying that the team won India’s heart. And that matters more than any trophy.

These are the same people who’d question Kohli’s hyper-masculine approach when India lost the Champions Trophy Final. This large-heartedness can be interpreted as another form of sexism of course, a new level of patronising that women sports stars don’t need. But I’d argue that we shouldn’t read it this way.

What we saw and felt on Sunday was precious, fragile even, and it falls upon us to stoke that fire gently and keep it from burning out.

We all share the responsibility from here on. What will follow now is maybe some token gratification in the form of cash grants, a couple of Boost ads and a Nike campaign here and there. But to see that there is a change in the status quo with the way the women’s game is broadcasted and consumed, is upon us. It is upon us to see that the women’s coach will not continue to be paid one-hundredth of Ravi Shastri’s salary.

Sunday held the possibility that we are taking baby steps into a world where women will freely choose cricket as a career, without being told that playing in the sun could harm their marital prospects. A world where Mithali Raj will make the same amount of money as Virat Kohli. A world where we will stop fearing the day that women will actually beat the men at what was supposed to be the gentleman’s game.

It is long vision and one that requires us to win this staring contest. What happened on Sunday is that we opened our eyes for the first time to take notice. Let’s not shut them again.

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