In a society wrecked by divisions, hierarchies and deep-rooted gender biases, the rise of the marginalised is to be celebrated. On Sunday, when the Indian women’s team take on defending champions Australia in the T20 World Cup final in front of thousands of spectators at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, it is safe to assume it would be an event watched by millions across the country. It is not as if Indian women cricketers have not performed well in the past, being World Cup finalists twice, but somehow the glamour of the T20 format and the fearless brand of cricket that this team is known for, have evoked much wider interest than one would have anticipated.
In 16-year-old Shafali Verma, women’s cricket has discovered a blazing star who could well end up being the Sachin Tendulkar of international cricket, such are her talent, stroke-making ability and self-belief. If Mithali Raj set our imagination aflame with her solid cricket in the longer format, the likes of Shafali, Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Poonam Yadav and others are setting new standards in a sport that India embraced in the seventies and for long was short on funds, resources and proper infrastructure.
There was a time when women’s cricket in India was seen by the male-dominant society as a game played in slow motion and there was little sponsorship or interest in how they performed. The Indian cricket board scoffed at the very thought of helping out their female counterparts and talked in derisive terms about their skills. For a board obsessed with money and profits and without any ethical foundations for transparent governance, women’s cricket was seen as an unnecessary burden.
Had the International Cricket Council (ICC) not stepped in and taken the initiative to merge the men’s and women’s cricket bodies in 2006, it is safe to say that Indian women would have been starving for funds even today and would have lacked the expertise, coaching and support system so necessary to expand their base and skills. Even now, despite the takeover by the BCCI, the pay gap between men and women cricketers is huge. For example, a grade A+ contracted male player is paid `7 crore a year as against just `50 lakh given to a woman player in the same grade. Surprisingly, star player Smriti Mandhana recently justified this huge disparity on the grounds that since women’s cricket does not generate any revenues, they should not or cannot demand similar pay cheques as the men.
Some would say this statement echoes the biases that women face from their male counterparts and Mandhana’s utterances would have been music for the BCCI which is even today reluctant to open up its purse for the development and encouragement of women’s cricket. Mandhana and the Indian team would do well to remember that the Australians they are facing in the finals won a decisive battle on pay parity from their board in 2017. And in their endeavour to be treated as equals, they were supported by their men’s team.
Money, for sure, can’t be the ultimate barometer for excellence in sport. Yet, if the governing body is flush with funds, it can’t discriminate between men and women because it feels one set of players is not saleable enough to earn more revenues. On Sunday, when India take on Australia, the entire country will hope for a repeat of their opening round performance against the same team in this World Cup. Even if they fail to do so, Indian women cricketers have done enough over the years to be treated at par with their male counterparts. The BCCI would do well to recognise this fact and correct the perception that they have an inherent bias against them.