By Somshuvra Laha

For a long time, Indian women’s cricket was too reliant on Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, but a wider talent pool is now emerging and thriving

The first ever cricket World Cup was hosted for women, not men, in 1973. And the first men’s World Cup in India was hosted in 1987, nine years after a four-team women’s World Cup in Kolkata, Jamshedpur, Patna and Hyderabad got eroded from public memory because Netherlands and West Indies withdrew due to financial constraints, there was no final, and India did not win any of their three matches. By the time Eden Gardens hosted the final of a full-fledged women’s World Cup—comprising 11 teams this time—in 1997, India’s collective cricket imagination revolved only around the men.

Before 2006 — when the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI) merged with the BCCI — women’s cricketers relied largely on promises of government and public sector jobs, measly allowances, and delayed reimbursements. Promises were doled out to celebrate achievements but not acted upon. Help came in the most unexpected form at times. Like, in 2003, when actor Mandira Bedi — still years away from being a celebrated IPL host — nudged a diamond trading corporation into sponsoring the team for a while.

Conscious disregard was meted out to women’s cricket because it wasn’t considered at par with the men’s version, be it in terms of skill, power, or audience pull. Between 2006 and now, India’s women have played seven Tests, Australia 11 and England 14. When BCCI introduced a central contracts system for the women in 2015, it was the last full ICC member to do so. And at a time nations like New Zealand are making equal pay a norm, women in BCCI’s top grade (A) are getting 50 lakh per year while the top men’s grade (A+) gives 7 crore as annual payout.

When news first broke in 2021 that the women hadn’t been paid their fair share of the $500,000 (around 3.5 crore then) prize money for reaching the final of the 2020 T20 World Cup, the BCCI quickly denied it, then passed the buck to someone else before finally asking the women to raise invoices. The matter was finally resolved almost 15 months after the World Cup final was played at the MCG in front of a record 86,174 spectators on International Women's Day (March 8). Australia’s women players, on the other hand, received their share of the prize money soon after the tournament.

Jhulan Goswami carried the mantle of leading the Indian attack for many years.

On the organisational front too, the BCCI has been occasionally lackadaisical. Only now has the domestic calendar included U-16 and U-19 level tournaments but it still lags Australia and England in terms of overall involvement. But the biggest grouse is BCCI’s lethargy in setting up a women’s IPL, a demand legitimately raised not only by Indian players but also from other countries. Because, the talent is indisputable. For a long time, Anjum Chopra, Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami were considered the torch bearers of Indian women’s cricket, and justifiably so. But if women’s cricket needed a push, it had to come from the next generation. That push, and a mighty one at that, came in the 2017 World Cup semi-final when Harmanpreet Kaur scored an unbeaten 171 in a 36-run win over Australia.

What made Indian cricket wake up to that epic wasn’t merely the fact that Harmanpreet took just 115 balls to fashion it but also the gender-neutral thrill every boundary and six evoked. The innings was brash but not reckless, bold but controlled. It was a game-changer, possibly the most important innings by an Indian woman that propelled Indian cricket through a glass ceiling reinforced by decades of gender-bias fuelled self-imposed ignorance. That it came against a side like Australia, a powerhouse of talent that has always ruled the roost in women’s cricket, couldn’t have been any more symbolic. With every stroke, Harmanpreet dispelled long-standing misconceptions thwarting women’s cricket. So have other women in the coming days as well. Indian women can’t bowl fast? Try to face Goswami. They aren’t athletic? Check out Harleen Deol’s phenomenal fling-back solo relay catch at the boundary rope to dismiss England’s Amy Jones last year.

Gender-neutral organisation and viewing of sport in India is still at a nascent stage but never before has women’s cricket been this visually compelling. With the likes of Harmanpreet, Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodriguez and Shikha Pandey, we finally have a talented and aspirational generation that is done with seeking validation. And around these women has emerged a group of young, fit and hard-hitting cricketers raised on makeshift pitches at home or at the Railways grounds in Tier 3 cities but with the aim of playing for India, not just for a government job. You see that desire translated into two World Cup runners-up finishes in the space of four years, as well as drawing England and Australia away last year.

Individually, Harmanpreet was the leader of a revolution, showing the way by being the second highest scorer for Sydney Thunder the very first season she was signed up by Australia’s Big Bash. And now, we have an Indian presence in top leagues like the WBBL and The Hundred. There are central contracts and sponsors now. Endorsements too are finally coming their way. It’s a marked departure from the past, of the times that saw the likes of Diana Edulji, Shantha Rangaswamy, Rumeli Dhar or Neetu David survive on pittance, travel unreserved by train, share rooms and ramshackle facilities and still show up on the field for the love of the game. Change has been rung in. But more needs to come, that too from within. We are getting there though, slowly but surely. If it’s batter now, not batsman or batswoman, that day can’t be far away.