Millennium Post
Game On

With a renewed vigour

Five years after just falling behind the finishing line, Indian women’s cricket team is again set to put a hard fight for the ICC World Cup trophy — with new zeal and sound fitness levels — perhaps as a tribute to the legends who may be playing their last WC

With a renewed vigour
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For those who talk of equality and pay parity, the difference between what Indian men and women cricketers earn is gigantic. The men's team is pampered, has a good domestic tournament structure and gets to play plenty of matches in the international cricket season. In sharp contrast, the women are starved of competition — though the series before the ICC World cup in New Zealand was welcome.

As Mithali Raj takes charge of the Indian campaign, once again, with the lung opener against Pakistan on Sunday (March 6), questions are being asked if this team can grab the trophy. The performance of the Indians in New Zealand in the ODI series was not good at all. Yet, to peak on the big stage is a very different proposition, but realistic.

It seems like yesterday that the Indian team, under Mithali, lost the final to England in 2017 by just nine runs. Copious tears were shed on the field and inside the dressing room. It was talked of as a story of one big missed chance. The theme keeps playing out again and again.

History and geography are not the same this time as the big teams compete in New Zealand for pride and prize. The way women's cricket has changed is phenomenal. The ladies play in coloured clothing like the men, and comparisons do not end there. The way players keep themselves super fit, athletic and ready to play thrilling cricket, has changed. If it's a run chase, the way the women have brought into play aggression, across the world, has been interesting to watch.

So, it shall be when India and two other teams from the sub-continent — notably Pakistan and Bangladesh — launch their assault. Talk of women's cricket in India, there are more stories of agony and competing against all odds. However, in the last five years or so, there has been change.

Yet, because of the pandemic, the Indian women's team has not got to play as much as the male compatriots. This one factor could be important as Team India raises hopes of doing well this time. When one talks of longevity in Indian cricket, names of Shanta Rangaswamy and Diana Eduljee come readily to mind. These two ladies played for years and their lasting skills were worth praise.

Yet, if you look at the way the current Indian team is composed of, the age of some players is baffling. We talk of mid 30s being middle age for the men-folk in sport. However, Mithali, 39, and fast bowler Diana Eduljee, also 39, are very much part of this team and raring to go.

It will not be an exaggeration to state that Mithali is a huge player in her own right. She has been around for two decades — a period during which she has shown hunger, guts and the desire to keep excelling. In 225 ODIs, she has scored 7,623 runs at an average of 51.85. Mithali has more or less given up the other two formats.

Even during the current tour of New Zealand, Mithali has been in good touch. What keeps the lady going is hard to fathom! In India, usually at this age, one would think lady professionals would think of slowing down and settling down. No, Mithali has been different. She is the brand ambassador of Indian women's cricket and has become a larger-than-life role model.

It's not easy to survive this long but the way she has handled her fitness and the ability to maintain a high level of proficiency in the game is defining. When Mithali had started playing cricket, the sport was so different. Today, women's cricket has a fair amount of glamour and the players are recognised like any other male hero. Perhaps, it was in fitness of things, she was given the Khel Ratna award by the Government of India last year.

If Mithali defines longevity in women's cricket, the story of Jhulan Goswami is even more enchanting. Fast bowlers have a well-defined shelf life. Injuries are common and despite the best conditioning, to last long is not easy. At a time when two legends in English men's cricket — Stuart Broad and James Anderson — have also been put in the cold storage, Jhulan has been the best.

She wears a smile most times. That is when she is not bowling. Once she steams into the bowl, the lady who is one inch short of six feet is mean and menacing. For her to be showing her wares for over 22 years in a sport which has brought her fame and fortunes (not comparable with male cricketers) has not been easy.

It seems like yesterday the girl from Chakdaha was at the Eden Garden in November 1997, where the ICC World Cup final (women) was played. Jhulan was not part of the team then but, as a ball girl in the boundary, she had seen what international cricket was.

Travelling daily from Chakdaha to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for training and getting better and better was a challenge. Jhulan has talked of how much she has evolved in this period. If fitness in the early days was about running more, she has realised today fitness is more about being smart. Just as every Indian athlete has realised scientific methods are very important, Jhulan has also imbibed a lot from seeing and interacting with professionals. Yet, what is remarkable is that she has kept herself in great shape.

Fast bowling is demanding. The wear and tear is high on the body. In an age where the batsmen have become better, thanks to their own innovation and better bat technology, bowlers have to strive to remain on top of their game. That is what marks Jhulan out as a fierce competitor with the edge still intact. At a time when many youngsters are knocking on the doors of selection, for Jhulan to be playing possibly her last World Cup is emotional.

In fact, her career and that of the captain (Mithali) have run parallel. That is whw y this ICC World Cup assumes so much

significance. After all, they know they will not be around for the next World Cup.

On paper, it does appear India are not the favourites this time. However, if experience is counted as a factor, then India can do well. Names of Harmanpreet Kaur (vice-captain), Smriti Mandhana, Shafali Verma, Poonam Yadav, Rajeshwari Gayakwad come readily to mind. These players have their roles cut out.

One important aspect where a lot has changed for the better with the Indian women's cricket team is how players are willing to use sports psychologists for helping them out. Mithali as well as a few more players have spoken of how important it is to be speaking to people with the right skill set to deal with complex issues concerning the mind.

For those who have followed women's cricket in India for a long time, there is no doubt, under the BCCI's wings, there has been improvement. Players have access to what can be called essentials these days. The sport, as such, has not become professionalised in India. But then, when we hear BCCI president Sourav Ganguly talk of an IPL style tournament for women, it's heartening. After all, some Indian women players have done well in the Big Bash league in Australia.

Over the next three weeks, even as the men compete against Sri Lanka in the Test series, the women's World Cup will keep fans engaged. It should not come as a surprise to the layman (or woman) that the way women's cricket is now followed on social media today is great. That change has come about slowly and steadily.

At a time when gender equality is the theme even for the International Olympic Committee, what the BCCI does for the women players will be important. Women's cricket is also part of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this July. So, it's not just about one World Cup in 2022 for the Indian ladies this time.

Views expressed are personal

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