Mithali Raj and Virat Kohli: The Batting Partnership Team India Needs

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Mithali Raj and Virat Kohli: The Batting Partnership Team India Needs

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

“G

irls can’t play cricket!” If I scored a run for every time I made that assertion growing up, I know for certain that my batting average would be higher than Ishant Sharma’s. It was a naïve assumption, based mostly on my experiences with my younger sister, who reacted to cricket bats like vampires to crucifixes. With time, however, and the benefit of an education, I’ve come to realise that my sister’s disdain for the game was a reflection of her personal tastes rather than an indictment of an entire gender.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been following the Indian women’s cricket team as closely as the men’s and have found myself being more impressed by Harmanpreet Kaur & Co than Virat and the gang. Back-to-back final appearances, including one victory, in the 2016 and 2018 edition of the Asia Cup, and a runners-up finish in last year’s World Cup have contributed to the rise in their popularity. The squad has hit a consistent rhythm, one which they will hope translates to positive results as they begin their World T20 campaign with two wins on the trot. Just yesterday, they celebrated a win over Pakistan. However, despite all this momentum and good press, the matches aren’t accompanied by the sort of fanfare that follows the men’s game around.

Just like I did during my school years, there are still plenty of people who nurse the notion that girls can’t play cricket. The sight of crowds gathered on the footpath, peeping into the windows of an electronics store to watch the match on the TVs displayed, is reserved for the men’s games. Even as the women who step onto the field put in as much effort and showcase as much talent as their male counterparts, they are still treated as a novelty act, rather than the main event.

I find it genuinely absurd that in a cricket-crazy nation where even Ranji Trophy players have a fan following, the women’s national team are not superstars. Cricket fans today may know more than just the name of the women’s team skipper, but there is a yawning gap between the attention men’s and women’s cricket gets and this reflects even in their pay. In March, it was revealed that some top players of the men’s team earn 14 times more than the women players. The supposed logic behind this is that since the women draw smaller crowds, they earn less money.

Team India’s strong performances over the last two years have shown that there is no dearth of talent in the women’s squad.

But the other end of the argument is, if they can’t support themselves by playing cricket, how can they be expected to raise the standard of their game so as to win more tournaments, which translates to more fans thronging to stadiums? It’s a vicious circle, and until it is broken, women’s cricket will continue receiving the step-child treatment from cricket administrators across the globe.

It was only on the backs of successful showings that the Indian women’s team garnered any cultural cache, highlighting another imbalance in the functioning of the sport. Women have to do well to be watched, men draw ratings even when they fail – despite a fall in viewership numbers and India’s dismal performance in England, Sony Six, which airs the games was the top-watched channel in August.  

After the 2017 World Cup, Mithali Raj voiced her desire for a women’s T20 league in India, which would be one way of attracting rich sponsors and eager audiences to the women’s game. But I have an even more radical idea – do away with any distinctions between the men and women entirely.

Sure, purists might be aghast at the notion that “the gentleman’s game” could one day be played by mixed-gender teams – but it would be a decisive step toward equality in cricket. If players like Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami, and Poonam Raut were on the same team as Virat Kohli, R Ashwin, and Hardik Pandya, they’d be eligible for the same lucrative contracts. They’d play before the same teeming masses and benefit from the same level of exposure. The men may have a monopoly on star power and drawing eyeballs, but talent is gender-agnostic.

Team India’s strong performances over the last two years have shown that there is no dearth of talent in the women’s squad. It’s only the ingrained notion among fans that women players are not good enough that keeps audiences away. And there are no real deterrents to cricket being a mixed-gender sport. It’s not a contact sport like rugby, or a combat discipline like MMA where a competitor might gain an undue advantage because of a size difference. It’s also a cerebral affair, where knowledge of weather conditions, awareness of field positions, and engagement in mind games with opponents can decide victories just as decisively as feats of strength or speed. When you watch a player as gifted as Mithali Raj, dubbed “the Tendulkar of women’s cricket,” in full flow at the crease, you don’t doubt for a second that she could face any bowler in the world, male or female.

There are signs that change might be on the horizon. The Indian Express reported that the 2022 edition of the Commonwealth Games might feature mixed-gender T20 cricket. Of course, there are those who believe mixing women’s cricket with the men’s game is adulterating both, that women should be allowed to develop their own style of play, distinct from the physical brand practised by the men. However, forays into men’s teams by women cricketers like Sarah Taylor and Ellyse Perry have proved that they have what it takes to hang with the big boys. Anyone who still thinks that men can play a superior brand of cricket to women has a mentality that dates back to Lagaan.

I’ve become a believer, and I believe that Virat Kohli and Mithali Raj can play for the same Indian team, and go win us every trophy in cricket. To slightly tweak the words of the great Inzamam ul-Haq, “Inshallah, boys and girls played well.”

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