By Rupha Ramani Feb. 28, 2020
Sixteen-year-old Shafali Verma is turning heads at the ongoing Women’s T20 World Cup. But only a couple of years ago, she had to cut her hair short and pretend to be a boy to play cricket. It takes a lot to be a woman sportsperson in India – fight gender stereotypes, and sometimes patiently wait for your brother to finish playing, so you can have a go.
The Indian men’s cricket team might be causing fans much anguish with their poor showing against New Zealand in the ongoing Test series. But not too far away, in Australia, another Indian cricket team is giving the country some reason to cheer. It’s the women who have stormed into the finals at the Women’s T20 World Cup after a string of thrilling victories. And with every electrifying triumph on the field, these young players are instilling fresh confidence among women back home.
This bunch of gritty girls (quite a few in their teens) could possibly change the way sports is perceived back home; in the maidans, bustling with hundreds of young boys in cricket gear, in neighbourhoods where men gawk or raise eyebrows when they see a girl walking out carrying a kit bag and dressed in a jersey, or in homes where fathers and brothers talk and play cricket in a world where the women of the house are mere spectators.
Shafali Verma is all of 16 years. She debuted for India last year, immediately inviting comparisons to the Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar and even went on to break his record of being the youngest Indian cricketer to score a half-century in an international game. Verma was 15 years and 285 days then. Watch her belt veteran bowlers in the ongoing T20 World Cup, and it’s evident that this one is a star in the making. You’d think a prodigious talent like hers would be nurtured from an early age, but you’d be wrong. To be able to play in a local tournament in Haryana’s Rohtak, she had to cut her hair short and pretend to be a boy. She was filling in for her sick brother. She managed to do that convincingly and even won the “Man” of the Series award. Her powerful hitting displays probably come from fearlessly standing up to boys as a little girl armed with just a bat in hand.
shafali Verma, 16, debuted for India last year, immediately inviting comparisons to the Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar. Daniel Pockett/Getty Images
shafali Verma, 16, debuted for India last year, immediately inviting comparisons to the Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar.
Daniel Pockett/Getty Images
Take another teenager in the ranks: Jemimah Rodrigues. Like Verma, Jemimah was turned down from academies because many of them just did not accept girls to train alongside boys. She finally started training, until coaches at the academy told her not to come back to play after she got hit while batting. Years later, proudly wearing the national colours, she dives as if there is no hard ground to crash down on, and slides like she is floating on water. Her every performance is an act of defiance against what she’s been told all these years: “Girls cannot play cricket; it’s a gentleman’s game; girls can’t handle getting hit like men do.”
It’s not easy to be a woman sportsperson in India, where even in the 2020s gender roles are clearly divided. A line from Chak De! India comes to mind. “Chakla belan chalane wali, hockey kya khelenge?” And though the movie was about hockey, this dialogue sums up the attitude a large part of India has toward women sportspersons. Often, the opposition comes from home.
Poonam Yadav’s father thought she had no business playing cricket and that’s when this sprightly woman, now a world-class bowler, decided to prove him and every other critic who thought that women do not belong on a cricket field, wrong. Looking at her perform at the World Cup gives me goosebumps. There she is, sporting short hair rudely chopped for comfort and held back by a hairband, a big red bindi on her forehead, intimidating top batsmen with her guile; the perfect amalgamation of all that is modern and traditional in India.
Cricket is after all a sport that is devoured by this country with great devotion.
These gutsy young ladies remind me of my younger days. Teachers berating me for skipping classes to go play a tournament, neighbours chuckling or shooting bemused looks each time I went out to practice lugging my kit bag, relatives telling me I will be dark and ugly if I continued playing in the sun. I had to wear a clunky, thick pair of track pants in the sweltering Chennai afternoons so that I could take the bus each day to the tennis courts, get into this tiny dingy equipment room to change into a skirt or pair of shorts to play. I just couldn’t walk through the streets wearing the very same clothes that I had confidence playing in.
It’s not easy to be a woman sportsperson in India, where even in the 2020s gender roles are clearly divided. Pacific Press / Getty Images
It’s not easy to be a woman sportsperson in India, where even in the 2020s gender roles are clearly divided.
Pacific Press / Getty Images
And many years later, watching these young cricketers celebrate every moment of triumph in Australia made me think it is just that: A bubble that bursts once they step out of that dream-laden cricket stadium. It’s probably worse when it comes to certain sporting disciplines like cricket, wrestling, or boxing, which aren’t considered as “graceful” as swimming, archery, or badminton. How can women – beautiful, dainty beings that they are – possibly succeed in playing gruelling sports?
That is the eternal struggle of the Indian sportswoman. She will bear jibes about the length of her skirt, or how patriotic she truly is, and still end up winning Grand Slams for her country; she will wait patiently to play just 15 deliveries hours after her brother has finished net practice every day and grow up to win the ICC Cricketer of the Year award. She will bear the brunt of all ridicule and humiliation for grappling with boys and not “behaving like a girl” to win medals for the country. And after conquering the world six times over, she will come home and take care of her three children along with her husband.
This year is special though. No matter what happens to this young Indian women’s cricket team, the T20 World Cup could prove to be that watershed moment for all women in Indian sports. Cricket is after all a sport that is devoured by this country with great devotion. This Women’s T20 World Cup could do for Indian women in sports what the World Cup win in 1983 did for a country starving for recognition on the world stage. These young women had only a few names, like Jhulan Goswami or Mithali Raj, to look up to and emulate.
The entire squad now is on the cusp of inspiring tens of thousands of women in India to follow their true passion, starting by shutting out the voices that tell them they can’t.
When she isn't watching sports, Rupha Ramani is dreaming of getting back to playing some sport. Now a freelancer, she worked as a reporter, presenter, and producer in a news channel for seven years, and was a producer at Star Sports for over four years.