“Equal pay. Equal pay. Equal pay.” These were the words that rang out from the stands of the stadium in Lyon, shortly after the United States women’s national football team (USWNT) brought home their fourth World Cup in July last year. Those two words have been discussed before and since across the world, all through women’s sports, all through 2019. Cricket Australia’s most recent MoU with their players means that the husband-wife pair of Mitchell Starc and Alyssa Healy finally take home the same base salary, after years of a disparity that was bigger than the difference in the couple’s height. There is a much taller discrepancy in the pay of Indian male and female cricketers though, and announcement of central contracts has stirred the pot again.
As have Smriti Mandhana’s recent comments. “We need to understand that the revenue we get is through men’s cricket. The day women’s cricket starts earning revenue, I will be the first person to say that we need the same thing. But right now, we can’t say that… And for that, we need to perform. It is unfair on our part to say that we need to be paid as much as the men – it is not right.”
There’s only one word I have an issue with, from that statement, and we’ll come to that in a bit. But what Mandhana has said is the athlete’s point of view. It’s a ‘process, not results’ kind of reply. Work on yourself. Work on your game. The results will come. And with those results, the money too. That men’s cricket brings in the big bucks is no secret, and it is welcome for a member of the Indian team to be openly realistic about it. Mandhana wants the women representing this country to be the architects of their own destiny, to raise the level of their achievements to the point where they too contribute to the balance sheet. Anything else might make room for a culture of excuses, one of my mentor’s favourite lines.
It is also a statement in line with my own experiences playing in the BCCI setup. Win something big before asking for more, was the unsaid rule. When, in 2013-14, the BCCI was the only board in the top 8 that had yet to introduce contracts, I once spoke to a senior cricketer, asking her ‘why don’t we all write to the BCCI and ask them to do so’. 'Let’s win the next series first and then see', was the answer.
There’s no doubt that winning helps. The USWNT won their first World Cup in 1991, their first Olympic Gold in 1996. England women, who received central contracts for the first time in 2014, were awarded a 40% increase in 2018 after they won the World Cup in 2017. India’s contracts jumped from a maximum of Rs. 15 lakhs to Rs. 50 lakhs after the same World Cup, where they stormed into the final. Australia’s women, national and domestic, are professionals since 2017 because their national team dominated world cricket for years before, winning every title from 2010 to 2015. Wins create visibility. Visibility creates value. Value translates into revenue. And that is what Mandhana was referring to. And she’s right.
Women’s cricketers around the world have been realistic in accepting that the economics of gender equality need some time to catch up, especially in sport, where the athletes are both employees and products. As employees, the governing bodies have a responsibility to make sure they are fairly treated, and that means the same facilities as their male counterparts. For the 2016 WT20 in India, the ICC flew women’s teams in economy while men flew business. Until recently, women shared hotel rooms while men had a room to themselves. In some cases, women were actually paid less DA (Dearness Allowance) than the men, as if to say they are supposed to eat less. All that has now changed in the last five years. Across the world, there is more parity in how the men’s and women’s teams are treated, if not paid.
But as products, market forces will play a part in determining values, and in this regard, Indian men’s cricket has had a 30-year head start, inflated by the demi-deific status that male cricketers enjoy in this country. I agree with the gist of what Mandhana said, in that pay equality is still a way off for India.
The only word I’d change in her line is "unfair". Unrealistic for now, yes. Unfair, no. Unfair is the fact that when the Indian team reached the final of the last World Cup, they did so earning pittances. Unfair is the fact that cricketers like Mandhana have been unearthed from towns like Sangli by chance, not design. Unfair is that for years before 2017, very few in the administration looked at the Indian women’s team as potential world beaters, and a potential revenue earning team. Unfair is the fact that the BCCI still does not run a national Under-16 tournament, despite more talents like the 15-year old Shafali Verma waiting to be unearthed.
In the recently held T20I series against South Africa at Surat, the Indian team drew crowds of more than 15,000. It’s not Mandhana’s fault that the games weren’t ticketed, and therefore didn’t contribute revenue. Games for the Australian and England women’s team have been ticketed for at least the last five years now, because the boards recognise that their teams have value. The BCCI puts little thought into the promotion of the women’s game, equating it to men’s cricket, where there is no promotion necessary.
Mandhana’s words were limited to her role: as a player, she needs to focus on what she needs to do. But the second wheel of the cart needs to move too, and that is the BCCI. There are a number of positive steps; the recent Quadrangular tournament featuring two Indian teams, Bangladesh and Thailand gave the bench strength much needed exposure. There are hopes that a fourth team might be added to the Women’s IPL T20 Challenge. And yet it is disappointing to see no increase in the value of the contracts for women, especially in the C grade (INR 10 lakhs), where the money is needed most, or an expansion of the contract pool to more players.
There is one important takeaway from Mandhana’s comments, it is that while players always want to win, their funding is not for their results, but their processes. It is for the hard work they put in to be the best they can be, not the win-loss ratio. Excellence, not perfection, should be how they are judged, after being given every possible support. In sport, you lose more than you win. When Australia received the multi-million dollar boost thanks to the new MoU in 2017, they had just lost both ICC titles they held, the ODI and T20 World Cup. It didn’t affect their funding. Since then they have snatched back the T20 World Cup title, and are gearing up to defend it in front of a home crowd of more than 90,000 at the MCG on this Women’s Day.
We can’t expect Mandhana to be the advocate for equal pay with no players association protecting her. It is up to me and you, the writer and the reader. The former player and the fan. The media and the public. Both sides need to be doing our jobs well, just like the players and the BCCI.
The author is a former India cricketer, and now a journalist and broadcaster. She hosts the YouTube Channel, ‘Cricket With Snehal’, and tweets @SnehalPradhan
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