ICC Women's World Cup 2017: Mithali Raj and Co are due accolades, support despite deep-seated apathy
We should just take a leaf out of the book of the women's team, and no matter how people have been studiously ignoring us, just ignore them all and keep on watching, supporting and celebrating.
Piya, a 22-year-old student from Hyderabad doesn't watch a lot of cricket. But when she does, it's usually men's matches. You know, because you can't help it, they're everywhere. The ICC Women's World Cup final on Sunday was the first time Piya watched a women's cricket match, and she says it was exciting because it was just such a phenomenal match. "It was fun to watch. It was so close, especially towards the end. You can see how seriously they take the game, and they played with pure skill. It could just be me, but I really don't think I've seen the men play like this - run, jump and catch like this - especially the fielding."
Piya isn't alone. This Women's World Cup saw a viewership (more than 50 million watched the matches on TV) and media coverage that was truly unprecedented. It wasn't just that Indians actually watched the final, and talked about it at length on social media.
Media houses too covered the matches with a level of attention and personal detail that's usually reserved for the pre-game rituals of Rohit Sharma and locker room chest-thumping of Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh. We read reports that made the women's team seem like real people.
We read reports talking about opener Poonam Raut's cab driver father borrowing money to send her to cricket coaching, and the backstory of how captain Mithali Raj got into cricket (her dad suspected that she was lazy when she was 10 years old), and how Veda Krishnamurthy was dying to be enrolled in a cricket academy in Bangalore because she idolised Mithali.
Of course, we also received the expected side order of pointlessness and misogyny, like reports wondering what Harmanpreet Kaur's parents' marriage plans are for her, and questions like "who takes the most selfies" and "who starts the most cat fights" being posed to the players. But the point is, we wanted to know more about these individual women, and the media was doing its best to oblige. For the first time in a long time, most people can name three members of the Indian women's cricket team.
Many people who watched this World Cup couldn't exactly put into words why they felt differently about it, but repeated that they got the feeling that the women put their heart and soul into the matches, and that you could see it on their faces and in the nature of their game. There's something about it that makes for a more personable experience, and that makes you feel more warmly towards them than how you feel about the often repetitive, testosterone-laden matches between the same men's teams over and over.
Anita Srinivasan from Mumbai who works at a law firm says that watching this tournament was particularly exciting because unlike men's cricket, there wasn't as much domination by the same few teams. Because there isn't such a stark difference in standard between the many women's teams, she says it makes for much more competitive playing, and for more exciting watching.
She also notices some differences in the way men and women play cricket and what that does to the matches. She says that there's definitely a discernible difference in speed: the running between the wickets and the run-ups of bowlers are perhaps slower than in the men's games, she says, and batters have a little less power. "But that being said, it makes for a different kind of game altogether compared to men's cricket: one that places less importance on power and pace and where accuracy, placement, dexterity of throws in the field are paramount." She feels the nature of women's ODIs has the potential to strike an interesting balance between the slowness of Test cricket and the excitement of T20s.
So on the one hand, we have women saying complicated, interested, excited and exciting things about the nature of women's cricket, the players and the experience of watching these matches. Men in the cricketing establishment, on the other hand, seem to have just totally missed the memo.
Like Pakistani cricketer Waqar Younis, who thought that the fact that the Women's World Cup was going on, presented the perfect opportunity to suggest some ideas that he was promptly rapped on the knuckles for. He tweeted that like tennis, women's cricket should be of 30 overs instead of 50. When everyone, including Australian cricketers Jess Jonassen and Alyssa Healy, laughed at him, pointing out the incredible run totals women's cricket had produced literally a week before, in the Australia versus Sri Lanka match. He quickly backtracked to say that he meant fewer overs meant a faster pace, so more people would watch, and asserted that he meant no disrespect.
After the final, commentator and sports writer Harsha Bhogle decided that now was the right time to invest in women's cricket. He tweeted: "The girls have shown that investment in the game will be worth it. Let's do it."
We didn't realise it was up for discussion. Most people actually found it quite incredible that the women's team made it as far as it did, not because they were unfamiliar with the team's accomplishments and skills or anything, but because we all know, in the back of our minds, how unfair we and the BCCI have always been to the women's team, and how little support, funding and encouragement our women cricketers get. When the men's team, who arguably enjoy demigod status in the country, play badly so often with all the support, pujas and money in the country, you can't be blamed for thinking that the lack of support the women's team gets in India would translate to bad cricket. But the point was never that the team had just now earned the right to be invested in, but that we should have invested in it decades ago.
Some men outside the cricketing establishment have also said that they feel the congratulations the women's team received were out of order, and have even tried to couch this opposition in 'feminism'. "When the men's team gets their houses pelted with stones after they lose an important match, what are we doing, congratulating the women's team endlessly for losing the finals? They didn't win, they lost. Congratulating them for it sounds like pity more than real empowerment," says Mumbai-based Varun, an advertising executive.
So what do we do, as watchers of women's cricket, standing down a whole system of male sportspersons and their noxiousness? Well, perhaps it isn't the fairest parallel, but maybe we should just take a leaf out of the book of the women's team book, and no matter what the opposition, or how the number of people invested in are beating us down, or even studiously ignoring us, just ignore them all and keep on watching, supporting and celebrating.
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