Mithali’s electric streak, and super moms

The last time I met Mithali Raj, she had an electric magenta streak in her hair.

She had just watched her team win the final Twenty20 International against New Zealand Women in Bangalore. A few days earlier, she had led the side to a One-Day International series victory, in the process crossing 5000 ODI runs and becoming only the second woman ever to do so. There were, at long last, contracts on the horizon for the Indian women cricketers, and Raj had been vocal in her support for it. At that time, hair colour, however unconventional, was the least interesting thing about her. A most unremarkable nugget in the larger picture, like the hum of the room’s air-conditioning or the unspoken impatience of the lingering housekeeping staff.

Yet, in reflection, it was that trifle that stuck. At the risk of reading too much into a simple choice of coiffure, it seemed bold and cheeky, independent and unabashed, fun and – dare I say it – feminine. Standing there, watched over by the portraits of Tendulkar, Bradman and a pantheon of definitely male greats on the Chinnaswamy walls, there was a woman in her record-breaking India blue and magenta hair, very much at home and unselfconscious in all the things she was.

The more I thought about it – what is it like to be a woman in cricket? – it is that streak of fun, the being many things at once, that allows the female cricketers of this generation to make the gentleman’s game their own.

It was on display when Kate Cross took three wickets on debut at the 123-year-old Central Lancashire League, and in the kohl lining the Bangladeshi women’s eyes, immaculate through the sweat and grime and pride of a clinical win under 35ºC sun that took them to the Women’s World T20 2016. In the lilting restraint of the PNG Lewas victory song and the exuberance of the one by the Irish ladies. When Cross’s fellow England international, Sarah Taylor, donned the gloves in first-grade cricket in Australia – “I had no idea that I would be the first woman to play at this level in Australia, but I am sure that I won’t be the last” – and in the four female umpires who officiated in the final of an ICC tournament for the first time.

In many ways, these women participate in the same game as the men; passion, competitiveness and team spirit is unencumbered by a chromosome.

Despite the stereotype, it isn’t the lower scores and shorter boundaries that characterise the women’s game – the likes of Sophie Devine, Stafanie Taylor and some of the women at this year’s inaugural Women’s Big Bash League have long challenged presumptions of power hitting. And where there may be lack of power, focus is on speed and agility to keep the scoreboard ticking.

Says Claire Polosak, the Australian who made history as part of the team officiating the Women’s World T20 Qualifiers in 2015, “Everyone is there to do a job. The fielding team is there to take ten wickets. The batting team is there to score runs. Us umpires are there to get decisions right. So everyone is there for a common goal.”

Beyond that goal of competing and winning, generations of cricketers have shown that the game can be life changing; but for the women, the difference is that it can help them make both personal and social strides.

“Cricket has changed my whole life,” says Norma Ovasuru, the PNG Women’s captain. “It taught me how to be disciplined, taught me how to get out of peer groups. It taught me how to stay out of alcohol, drugs, everything. It’s a sport that has helped me be more disciplined inside and outside, on and off the field.”

Ovasuru, who took up the game ten years ago at 16 and has also represented her country in indoor volleyball, adds, “Cricket is a sport that takes you to places where you’ve never been to before.”

Her advice to young women in her country – “Try a sport, it can make a difference to your life. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you” – is particularly succinct when taken with the knowledge that PNG remains “a priority country in UN women’s strategic plan” according to the world body, with violence against women considered among the highest in the world.

After all, in women’s cricket, a player never stops at being just a cricketer. They are probably also a student or a professional, and there’s that whole business of being a woman too.

“It’s six months since I’ve seen my daughter,” says Ovasuru. “Hopefully she recognises me!”

Eight of the 14 women who represented PNG at the Women’s World T20 Qualifiers had young families – “But we don’t act like mothers!” – as did at least four of the Zimbabwe ladies. Those numbers shouldn’t have been surprising (would we ever raise an eyebrow at the male cricketers with families back home?) but they were, given the rarity of female athletes who continue in sport at the highest level after starting a family.

Female cricketers in India speak of how most players who fail to break into the first-choice side choose to hang up their boots in their mid-to-late 20s – an age where, women of the country will tell you, one is defined by her profile, with an ominous countdown clock hanging from a very grey doom cloud of unforgivable spinsterhood if the aunty down the road was to be believed.

World over, women’s careers slow down or stop with marriage and children – the number as high as 43% of educated working women according to a recent report. But these women are a welcome exception, and they could give Sheryl Sandberg a lesson or few about leaning in.

Ovasuru lives in Australia’s Gold Coast with her partner and 15-month-old daughter, and trains in PNG. “I stopped cricket when I was expecting. When my baby was a month old, I was asked to go back and train. And the day that I gave birth, I was in pain, I was in labour, the first thing that came into my mind was ‘thank you for my child’. And then I said ok I am ready to go back and play cricket!”

“My life at home is … average,” says Precious Marange, Zimbabwe allrounder, national rugby captain, machine operator and mother to a four-year-old boy. Her mantra: “I give each department time.” She rattles off a schedule that includes work, training, competitions, gym and errands – “I have to entertain my family also” – and leaves a listener exhausted. She doesn’t want her son to be an athlete: “I want him to be a pilot.”

“It’s very hard to leave my family home, but with the passion that I have, I have to sacrifice for cricket,” adds her captain, Chipo Mugeri, matter-of-factly.

For Ovasuru, “It’s been different, starting off single and getting married and giving birth. It’s quite hard to balance. But my husband, he also plays cricket for local clubs so he understands.”

“It would have been impossible without the support of my family,” former India player Neha Tanwar said in a recent interview upon her comeback after motherhood. “Never once did they complain. I dedicate this second innings to them.”

Supportive partners, in-laws and parents who take on baby-sitting duties, and understanding bosses are a constant in these stories – as one would expect in the life of any working woman. But could the game and its structure too do more to make it easier to be a woman in cricket?

Recent efforts towards professionalising the game – contracts, the ICC Women’s Championship, prime time TV slots – have struck a blow for the cause, simply by elevating its status. And much of that change sounds like thousands of footsteps through the turnstiles and a reported average TV audience of 250,000 tuning in to the Women’s Big Bash League.

For starters, these efforts have legitimised the women’s game with the viewing public, while opening doors to players where previously they had to find their way through cracks.

According to Polosak, recent initiatives targeted at women are “a huge opportunity for female players to see possible pathways for when they retire from cricket. It’s great for female officials to realise there are opportunities and it’s good for us to be in an environment where it’s not always men.” A science teacher at Sydney, the 27-year-old Polosak thinks her “conflict resolution skills” from interacting with kids can be used on the field as an umpire.

The challenges, of course, remain. But to hear a James Sutherland call out a sexist Chris Gayle and his apologists – “Those sort of comments border on harassment. Anyone that sees the humour in that is misunderstanding and somewhat delusional about the situation” – shows women associated with the game that they can expect respect, and demonstrates, clearer than before, an intention to be inclusive.

Women in positions of leadership have stressed on the importance of mentorship and networking in personal and career advancement. For female cricketers, this comes as a happy side effect of the guaranteed bilateral tours through the Championship and being involved in foreign leagues.

Speaking about the programme to introduce promising young talent from associate nations to the WBBL, Cathryn Fitzpatrick, Cricket Australia youth coach and a former coach with their women’s team, said: “It’ll be mutually beneficial. You spend so much time playing against certain countries, it’s good for them to learn about other cultures and look at how other countries play the game, but also, Australia is a very multicultural country, so hopefully it’ll be good to bring some fresh people into the game.”

Fitzpatrick, a fast bowler in her time who made history in 2006-07 by playing a T20 match for the Dandenong Club in Victoria with the men, added: “Women’s cricket at the moment … they’re balancing a whole lot. When you’re at home and you’re trying to prepare yourself as a cricketer, you still have competing interests with school, work, and obviously family as well, which is rightly so a big draw. But I think to go away and spend two weeks purely to play cricket and be a cricketer, I think it’ll be a nice relaxing time.”

It was repeated, not least on these pages, that 2015 was a “watershed” year for women in cricket. With the Women’s World T20 only a few months away, a packed international calendar for 2016, and the WBBL reaching its prime-time climax, women’s cricket feels electric. And this time, it’s not the hair colour.

This article was first published in Wisden India.

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