ICC WWC 2017: Mithali Raj incident shows why women's cricket shouldn't be compared to men's game

“So who’s your favourite male cricketer?”

It is a question that I get asked a lot. The setting is usually family dinners, usually by uncles and aunties and other members of the genus oldfashionedica, species inquisitivica. Innocuous enough, right? Just table talk, between mouthfuls of home food that loosens jaws better than beer does. Nothing to write home about…

ICC WWC 2017: Mithali Raj incident shows why womens cricket shouldnt be compared to mens game

File photo of Mithali Raj. AFP.

But when the same question was put to Mithali Raj, on the cusp of the biggest cricket tournament in the female game, it wasn’t innocuous, it represented something more insidious. So Raj put a question of her own across in reply.

“Do you ask that same question to a male cricketer?”

“Do you ask them who their favourite female cricketer is?”

Raj’s retort has gained quite a bit of traction in the media. News channels have picked it up. Amitabh Bachchan has tweeted about it. Raj herself, speaking on the eve of her match against England, downplayed it and chose to focus on the cricket.

“I didn’t intend to be arrogant, it was just something that came from the heart,” she said. “I felt it’s a stage for women cricketers, it’s our forum, so the questionnaire should be around women’s cricket and not men’s cricket.”

I would love to say that this kind of question was a one off. A cursory Google search will show you that it isn’t. For a collection of the choicest questions, head over to the #CoverTheAthlete video that points out the blatant sexism in sports media in the west. Closer to home, I direct you to our very own Kapil Sharma Show.

On the 100th episode of Kapil Sharma’s show, Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami, Harmanpreet Kaur and Veda Krishnamurthy were invited as guests. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to their marriages; their cricketing achievements were conveniently sidetracked. Dance moves, possible Bollywood husbands, and sledging made the conversation though.

While Kapil isn’t exactly the gold standard of broadcasting, the fact that we have questions like the one Raj faced in 2017 underlines how far the perceptions surrounding women’s sport have to go. I could point you to a number of excellent articles on the topic: Andy Bull’s piece showing how hard women’s sport has had to fight, just to gain equal opportunity. Or Zenia D’Cunha’s article highlighting the bias we don’t even realise exists in media coverage. Personally I want to address something closer to my heart.
Direct comparisons.

One question I often asked in my career (thankfully, this one was actually about my career) was how fast I bowled. Between 105, 115 kmph I would say, and I would see the crestfallen look in most male eyes. A patronising ‘ah ok’ would usually follow. Most weren’t impressed, because they were comparing my speeds to the usual speeds found in male cricket.

I had introduced myself as medium fast, but I could see them categorising me under genus dibbly species dobbly.

ESPNCricinfo, the world’s leading cricket website, has Jhulan Goswami put down as a right arm medium bowler. Goswami regularly bowls in close to 120 kmph, and has even crossed that mark. That’s just a few clicks shy of Cathryn Fitzpatrick, considered the fastest ever. So how come we never call them fast bowlers, just medium pacers?
It’s because we compare female cricket directly with the men.

The same skewed view applies to scores. With 300 quickly becoming par — given a good batting wicket — in male cricket, scores of 200 and 250 in this World Cup will surely be looked down upon by some myopic viewers. But in truth, women’s cricket is steadily improving, with average run rates rising every year. In the 2013 World Cup, the average run rate crossed four an over for the first time in World Cup history, and this edition is likely to set the bar even higher. 2016 saw the highest average run rates in a calendar year ever (4.33).

So women’s cricket is pushing the envelope of its own existence. It is on the upward curve, it is a better sport than ever before if you would bother to put it up on its own pedestal, not side by side with the men.
In this world of short memory spans, we forget how in the 90’s, 250 was a winning score in male cricket. And then we neglect the head start — more like five body lengths start — that male sport has had over the centuries (if you aren’t convinced, read Bull’s article, if you haven’t already). Female cricket is evolving faster than male cricket in many ways: Women held the first ever World Cup in 1973, and they already have a Future Tours Program that provides context to bilateral ODIs, the ICC Women’s Championship.

Female cricket will always aspire to get better, and in many ways, better is more like male cricket, but that doesn’t mean we can compare them without context. Tennis has gone some way in recognizing the differences, without degrading them. Would you flay Serena Williams for serving 25 kmph less than Roger Federer? No. And yet all Grand Slams now offer equal prize money.

Perhaps hardcore feminists out there will not like my take on the issue. But for me, feminism in sport is more nuanced than absolute equality. We can have equality while acknowledging and celebrating differences. Different, yet equal. Athletes of each gender need to be appreciated separately for pushing the limits, even when those limits are not the same.

So when Shabnim Ismail and Katherine Brunt, and our very own Goswami run up to bowl in this World Cup, I hope the media, broadcasters, commentators and even viewers will call them right arm fast, not right arm fast medium. And if Raj and Co. chase more than 245, which is the current record high for India, let’s stand up and acknowledge it, the way we did when Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif chased 325 in this country.

It’s 2017, and we finally have a standalone female superhero movie. The World Cup showcases the superheroes of the female cricket. Let’s not blight our own eyes by comparing them to the men.

Snehal Pradhan is a former India cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She hosts the series ‘Cricket How To’ on YouTube and tweets @SnehalPradhan

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Updated Date: Jun 24, 2017 13:57:57 IST

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