On the 28 June 2016, as the Mumbai sea breeze took away the sting of a hot day, a boisterous crowd filled every seat in the National Sports Club of India dome. The nearby Haji Ali Dargah was not the only place where chants of the faithful resounded. At the NSCI, another kind of faithful chanted for the homegrown heroes of a homegrown game, who had become household names over the past two years. But this crowd got more than they bargained for. They got a glimpse into the future.
As the commentators kept reminding us, this was a historic night that would change the face of women’s sport, perhaps all sport, in India. The crowd looked on as Mithali Raj, captain of the Indian cricket team, set the ball rolling with the national anthem. But despite her luminous record, it was not her the crowd cheered for. Instead they strained their vocal chords for 28 other women, as they kicked off the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge (WKC), on their first day of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) 2016.
The Pro Kabaddi League took off in 2014; a brainchild of Mashal Sports, among whose directors is broadcaster Charu Sharma. From the very beginning, the PKL has featured a number of women among the various experts performing different hands-on roles, be it in commentary or as referees.
Former Maharashtra captain Gautami Raut-Aroskar, a Shiv Chatrapati award winner, has been associated with the league since its inception as a commentator. She gave Firstpost some insight into why the PKL has been ahead of its competitors in its approach to hiring personnel. “There was never a concrete effort to bring more women on board from the organisers”, she said. “It was just a matter of hiring experts who could do the job irrespective of their gender. We went through a selection process, and those who were able to do the job best were chosen.”
The PKL’s policy is praiseworthy. While following the Euro 2016, I noticed the conspicuous absence of female voices behind the mike. While the BCCI recently made headlines for a good reason, by adding four female commentators to the IPL, the PKL has done so since inception, not as an afterthought, however welcome. In previous seasons the PKL also invited Arjuna Awardees Mamata Poojary and Tejaswini Bai, who have both been captains of India, onto the commentary team. Both are now captains of two of the three teams in the WKC.
By and large, corporates view investing in sports other than cricket as a risk, and women’s sports even more so. But risks are nothing new to the PKL. Since 2014 itself, there has been talk of a women’s league within the PKL, unlike other leagues that shy away from such discussions. “That is the next step," Sharma had said back then, of a full fledged women’s league.
The three Women’s Kabaddi Challenge teams are all in-house, not owned by private bodies like the men’s teams are. “What we’re doing at the moment is a sort of season teaser for the women’s league. It’s more in a preliminary nature,” said Sharma. But that doesn’t mean the PKL team are treating it lightly.
Abhilasha Mhatre, the third captain in the competition, told Firstpost how the PKL organisers have left no stone unturned in making the women's league a success. “They always wanted to have a women’s league. The reason it took so long is because they wanted to make sure they do it right. And their passion and excitement has been amazing. They have provided us trainers, nutritionists, stylists, and briefed us on how to speak in front of the camera.” She went on to add that it wasn’t just about presentation. “The belief in ourselves and our game has always been there, no question about that. It’s just about polishing the finer aspects, and the process has given us a new kind of confidence in off field areas as well.”
The impact of the PKL at the grass root level has been irrefutable, says Raut-Aroskar. “At inter school events in Mumbai, we usually had about 20 boys teams. That number has gone up to more than 150 after the PKL. Even convents and English medium schools, which showed little interest in kabaddi earlier, are sending teams. The Women’s Kabaddi Challenge will also have a positive impact for sure.”
Through its initiative, the PKL may just have provided a template to other sporting leagues, on how to make sure they tell both sides of the story. By investing in these exhibition matches, the organisers have whetted the appetite of the public, and a strong response will surely set the groundwork for a full fledged women’s league.
For some time now, there have been hopes, even voiced by Mithali Raj, that the BCCI could start a women’s IPL. It would be well worth taking a leaf out of PKL’s book and using exhibition matches as the first step in a bigger picture. Even the organisers of the ISL could benefit by having women’s matches as part of their program. More women playing could also mean more women watching, and it opens up a huge viewership demographic.
“Sports like badminton and tennis already had huge female stars, so their leagues showcased them. But it’s fantastic that the PKL is going the extra step and creating leagues even where no female star power exists. Full credit to the vision of the organisers”, said Shubhangi Kulkarni, Arjuna Awardee and former Indian cricket captain.
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, said in her bestselling book, Lean In, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.” While such a world is still far from reality, it is heartening to find those, even in the male dominated fields of corporate sports, who have gone beyond commonplace platitudes, and put their money where their mouths are.