“I am the least qualified of all my siblings,” quips Shantha Rangaswamy, when I speak to her about receiving the first Lifetime Achievement Award constituted by the BCCI for female cricketers. “We have 4 engineers in the family, one PhD, one double graduate, and then me.” Consider the fact that the times were the 60s and 70s, and all the above achievers were women, and it gives you a glimpse of the fortitude of the Rangaswamy family.
Shantha Rangaswamy was born in 1954 and raised in Bangalore, one of seven sisters. “My father passed away when I was 12,” she told Firstpost. “We were seven daughters, no sons, but even in that situation, my mother insisted we all have a good education. We are all where we are today because of my mom.” Rangaswamy would become one of the most memorable cricketers of her time. "Great lady," she continued, talking about her mother. I agreed, but I was thinking of the daughter as well.
In the 60s and early 70s, open space was not at as much of a premium in Bengaluru (then Bangalore) as it is now. In the large backyard of their joint family compound, the youngest cousins of the Rangaswamy clan, about 20 in all, would gather on weekends, boys and girls alike, and play tennis-ball cricket. This was where Shantha Rangaswamy took a step into the world of sports.
Always tall as a young girl growing up, she played multiple sports for the state, like ball badminton and softball, before playing organised cricket. Actually, calling the women’s cricket infrastructure back then organised is a stretch. “When we started, there wasn’t anybody to run the game.” Rangaswamy and her state teammates did not even know about the first women’s cricket nationals — famously played by two and a half teams — taking place in Pune in early 1973.
They participated in the next one though, the same year. Those were the days of travelling unreserved in filthy trains and staying in way-too-small dormitories. Rangaswamy remembers having to convince the families of some players to send their daughters. Their first nationals were a success though. “There were 14 teams, and we came second. I won the best all-rounder award," she recounts.
When India played their first official Test in 1976, Rangaswamy — a batting all rounder who bowled wicked inswingers — was captain, beginning a list of firsts she would make her own. First captain, first Test win, first centurion for India, and first Indian female batter to hit a six. She has a special attachment to these records, because they mean she shares a statistical connection with her icon, Sunil Gavaskar. “He was the first to score 10000 runs. No matter how many runs people make now, no one can take that away. That tag of first is always something to be proud of," she said.
It is not what she considers her greatest legacy though, neither is becoming the first female cricketer to receive the Arjuna Award in 1976. That place belongs to the fact that women’s cricket survived the pioneer days. “If you look at that time, a lot of other women’s sports were starting up. But many of them withered away. Cricket did not, mainly because we put up good international performances.”
Unlike what the scorebooks suggest, India played their first Test match earlier than 1976. New Zealand were the first team to tour India. “I scored 527 runs in five Tests, including a century in Pune in that series. Then Australia visited in 1975. I scored 203 runs in three Tests,” she said. Both those Tests were considered unofficial though, and those runs were never counted against Rangaswamy’s record. But she did carry a more tangible momento from the Pune Test. After her hundred there, she was presented with a Luna scooter, her first ever vehicle. Need I remind you, the concept of being paid to play was as foreign as the visiting teams. Before that, Rangaswamy routinely walked more than 10 km or took the bus to get to training. And she spent out of pocket for her gear and tours.
Those series were followed by an official Test win at home against the West Indies in 1976, and a tour to New Zealand where the team remained unbeaten over 45 days. In Dunedin, Rangaswamy scored her first official Test hundred. Results like these boosted interest in the game at home, and kept the flame burning.
“You could play today because we did well then," she tells me with conviction.
If today’s female cricketers complain that they don’t get enough games, Rangaswamy’s generation should have been staging agitations. If you think her record is impressive as it is, consider that she lost many of her prime years to the lack of international tours. “From 1977 to 1984 there were official international series. Then again from 1986 to 1991, there was nothing. We even missed the World Cup in Australia in 1988 since the government didn’t give permission.” As a last resort, Rangaswamy and the Indian team met then Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who intervened and cleared the trip. But by then, hosts Australia had made all arrangements and declined India entry. Rangaswamy played her last international game in 1991.
Always known as one to speak her mind, she asked why the BCCI took a decade to recognize female cricketers, and acknowledged the difference having a female player on the Committee of Administrators has made. “It’s a big honour for women’s cricket that Diana (Edulji) has been named by the SC to be the lone cricketer in the COA," she said. As to her own award, she took the long view of it. “Look at the recognition women’s cricket will get in the years to come. Every year one deserving person will be acknowledged. It’s a small step for me, but a giant leap for women’s cricket.”
Life has come full circle for Rangaswamy. From a daughter who benefitting from the foresight of her own mother, she has become a matriarch in a male-dominated game. She recently retired as General Manager of Canara Bank, where she worked since her playing days. With more time on her hands now, women’s cricket could be seeing a lot more involvement from one of its ‘founding mothers’, as she puts it.