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Indian women’s cricket has come a long way, but there is very little written about them. Does Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket in India deliver?
“The women are here to stay; you can’t strike them off.”
That is what author Suprita Das says in her introductory Author’s Note for her book Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket in India. And it is only once you have read the book that you will truly believe in these words, and won’t want to let go of that faith!
Before I begin though, I would like you to know, that just before I agreed to do this review, I did a Google search, with the words: ‘Books related to Indian cricket’ and it revealed a bunch of hits, and at least 10-15 images of biographies, autobiographies and several other books related to the game of cricket in India – all of them related to men’s cricket. While a similar search, worded: Books related to Indian ‘women’s’ cricket, brought up only a few links, and only two images of books. (One of them, being the book you are now reading the review of.)
Image credit: Rashmi Raj
It was that Google search, and the fact that I had only heard of very few names of women cricketers in India despite my fairly good exposure to social media in the current age of the Internet; that made me sit up and take notice of this beautiful work – Free Hit. A book that tells in striking detail, the story of how women’s cricket started in India and how far it has come. But most compellingly, it talks about how far women’s cricket still has to go in our country!
Right at the beginning we get a thrilling glimpse of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 Final game of India Vs Australia; where Harmanpreet Kaur played the innings of a lifetime! The Final that brought the India Women’s cricket team in limelight like never before!
But the real story begins as far back as 1971 (Yes! Women’s cricket in India is that old,) when one man, Mahendra Kumar Sharma – then organising softball and handball tournaments for school and college girls – thought that “kanyaon ki cricket” (women’s cricket) made sense, and organised the first ever cricket matches for women. Exploring the by lanes of Lucknow on a rickshaw, microphone in hand, he invited people saying “Kanyaon ki cricket hogi, zaroor aaiye!” (There will be girls’ cricket matches, do come to watch!) On the day of the matches though, not many people turned up; and those who did, had come to watch the girls play in skirts! However, once people saw that the quality of cricket was good, they spread the word, and came back for more.
After that, there was no stopping this man with his unmatched passion for the sport; and the women, who, though novices at the game, played it keenly and passionately. It wasn’t long after, that the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI), affiliated to the International Women’s Cricket Council was formed, that organised the very first senior national women’s championship in Pune in 1973.
Under the WCAI, the daughters of India, many of them from conservative families, came out to play the game of cricket. They played their global counterparts and won them over. They mastered their technique and improved their game. And India saw the rise of its first generation women cricketers like Diana Edulji, Fowzieh Khalili, Sudha Shah, Susan Itticheria, Shantha Rangaswamy; and a little later, Anjum Chopra, Neetu David, Purnima Rau and the likes.
Being paid for playing cricket, of course, was a foreign concept then in women’s cricket. And the players travelled in unreserved train compartments – at times, even in bullock carts – to get to the venue of the matches. The venues weren’t all that great either. Matches were mostly held in “the kind of grounds where male cricketers would probably refuse to even train.” But nobody complained. These women were entering the domain known to belong to men, and for them, playing for India was more important that any luxuries.
Over the years, the Indian women have played the biggies, and the world’s favourites like Australia and England who were better trained, and who enjoyed better facilities and even better pay, in their respective countries. What Free Hit tells us, is stories of these stalwarts who have made the India women’s team what it is today. Right through to the second generation of Indian women cricketers.
Like the inspiring go-getter Jhulan Goswami, travelling by an early morning train from her suburban home to the training ground in Calcutta (now Kolkata) just so she could train for two hours before going back to attend college; or the inspiration who lived someone else’s dream for the longest time, Mithali Raj, who started going to the cricket training grounds with her brother and father, and hit balls in her spare time; only to be noticed by her brother’s coach who told her father, that it was his daughter, not his son, that was meant to play for India – a dream of her father’s that she saw to fruition. Or the big (six) hitter Harmanpreet Kaur, inspired by Virender Sehwag and playing big and bold shots like him; or the starry-eyed big-hitter Smriti Mandhana whose aim in life was to read her name in the papers; and who had figured out as a child, that the only way to do that, was to enter Bollywood (films) or become a cricketer.
These stories speak of the perseverance and the grit and the passion of these girls who played the game of cricket for the love of it and who didn’t let anything stand in the way of their dream and their passion!
Of course, no game of cricket is free of a few controversies. And in Free Hit we also get to read about the (not-so-well-managed) management of women’s cricket in our country. It shows us how, for the longest time, women played with second-hand kits, handed down to them by their male counterparts. How, they made do with accommodations that were neither five-star nor luxuries; but just, bare minimum. How, around 2015, (yes, that late in the game), the players were given contracts and also jobs with the Railways and other Governmental organisations, and some other perks. (Although it is interesting to note that even the highest paid female cricketer was still paid less than the least paid male cricketer! Go figure!)
But on a positive note, after playing for decades in obscurity, with no live streaming of many of their matches, the 2017 ICC World Cup Final against Australia was, for the first time, organised and provided for on par with the men’s game; with a lot of media coverage and better marketing of the game.
There is no doubt that women’s cricket has met with gender-based challenges like lack of sponsorship, and the utter apathy of the administrators of the game, in our country. But no matter how much negativity surrounds them, the India women’s team is ready to scale newer heights!
After all, the truth, as Suprita Das says in the book, is: “India’s women cricketers have beaten all odds to make it this far. To send them back to the dressing room now, is going to be impossible.”
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With over 200 published stories, Rashmi is a lawyer-turned-writer, who has always given
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