Early in the morning of April 11, 1913, a group of militant suffragettes set fire to the pavilion at the Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club in Kent. A photograph of Emmeline Pankhurst was found pinned to the grass in front of the charred detritus, according to reports, to draw attention to the British political activist’s incarceration in Holloway Prison, and the practice of force-feeding her and others when they were on hunger strikes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a keen cricket enthusiast, reacted indignantly to the incident at a meeting of The National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, calling the arsonists “female hooligans” and comparing the attack to “blowing up a blind man and his dog”. No one is certain why the club was targeted, though it’s said that some time prior to the attack a Kent official had commented: “It is not true that women are banned from the pavilion. Who do you think makes the teas?”
The pavilion was repaired in less than three months and the ground went on to host the memorable 1983 World Cup match between India and Zimbabwe where Kapil Dev scored 175 not out in the run-up to lifting the coveted trophy.
It’s been a little over a hundred years since a little-known Kent official likely triggered what turned out to be much more than a storm in a teacup. Since then, the inaugural women’s Test match has been played between England and Australia in 1934.
In 1958, the International Women’s Cricket Council (IWCC) was constituted to manage women’s cricket around the world, taking over from the English Women’s Cricket Association, which had been doing the same job in a de-facto role since it was formed 32 years earlier.
In 2005, the IWCC was merged with the International Cricket Council (ICC) to form a unified body to help administer and develop cricket. And now we are talking about the possibility of organising matches where male and female stars take the field together. So gender fairness in cricket has come a long way since 1913. Or has it?
In January, cricketers Hardik Pandya and Lokesh Rahul were guests on an episode of the popular TV chat showKoffee with Karan where the former bragged about his sex life and made several misogynistic comments while objectifying women. In 2016, West Indies batsman Chris Gayle made boorish suggestions to a woman reporter, drawing chuckles from male commentators on air. So maybe more needs to happen, and maybe mixed-gender cricket is not the answer.
After being neglected for years, women’s cricket has taken off in India particularly since the team’s World Cup campaign in England in 2017 when they finished runners-up. Harmanpreet Kaur and Mithali Raj are now household names.
In fact, talks are on to organise an exhibition game where the likes of Harmanpreet and Virat Kohli play together. There have also been discussions on organising such an event in the Commonwealth Games. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Proponents of the idea suggest that this would help promote the women’s game while detractors feel this is yet another attempt to squeeze more money out of the sport.
Women have played in men’s matches in the past. England wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor participated in men’s grade cricket in Australia when she appeared for Northern Districts against Port Adelaide in October 2015. Arran Brindle became the first woman to score a century in men's semi-professional cricket when she notched up 128 for her team against Market Deeping CC in 2011.
It’s possible to organise mixed-gender cricket matches: after all, it’s not a contact sport like boxing or wrestling. Such events have been around for years in tennis and badminton. While attending the 2017 Women’s World Cup final at Lord’s, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar too had had such a brain wave.
“Like there is mixed doubles in tennis, why can’t there be a men-and-women cricket match against another country? Why can’t they have mixed cricket teams where six Indian men and six Indian women play against Australia’s six men and six women? If this kind of a set-up happens, it will be the biggest set-up ever,” he said.
But should something be done just because it can be done? Women’s cricket is not inferior to the men’s version and doesn’t need to imitate it. The first player to score a double-century in a one-day international match was Australia’s Belinda Clark in 1997, achieving the feat before any other woman, or man. Her countrymate Betty Wilson was the first player ever to take ten wickets and score a century in the same Test in 1949.
Yes, women in general don’t bowl or hit the ball as hard as the men. But they are often more precise and calculated: focusing more on skill and accuracy, and less on power and physical intimidation. The idea of a mixed-gender game implies that the women are in some ways not good enough and have to match up to the men. It would also spark patronising discussions on how, for instance, a Kagiso Rabada would have to take his pace down a few notches while bowling to a Smriti Mandhana.
While women’s cricket now has a massive fan base around the globe, there remains significant disparity when you compare the coverage and salary with the men’s game. Administrators and enthusiasts need to focus on the right areas rather than trying to mix and match: it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
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