India are playing a Test match after three months, the first series after Ravi Shastri’s eventful appointment as coach. Shikhar Dhawan scored a century, blasting 190 off only 168 balls. Cheteshwar Pujara made yet another Test ton.
But for a large chunk of sport journalists in Mumbai, the cameras and microphones were trained on the Indian women’s cricket team, returning from their impressive campaign at the World Cup. Who would have thought, right?
It started even earlier. Roughly around 0330 hours on Wednesday morning, the team walked out to a rapturous response at the Mumbai airport – garlands, applause, banners, people shouting their name. The crowds jostled each other to see them, the television cameras shoving for space. Hard to imagine, right?
When captain Mithali Raj and coach Tushar Arothe arrived for press conference before leaving for England for the World Cup on June 10 at the Sharad Pawar Indoor Cricket Academy in Bandra, there were only a handful of reporters in the room. When the team came back around 45 days later, they were in a five-star hotel ballroom full of journalists in front of a large backdrop that read “We are Proud of You #WomeninBlue.” Quite the difference, right?
The team entered into the melee-like situation to flashing camera lights and frenetic clicking sounds as scores of cameras were thrust onto their path. They posed and smiled in front of the banner. There were three different press interactions – Raj and Arothe first, followed by Jhulan Goswami and Harmanpreet Kaur and then finally, Deepti Shama, Smriti Mandhana and Punam Raut. A sea change from the barely 15-minute pre-departure conference.
Even Raj, who previously led the team to its first World Cup final in 2005, admitted the reaction was unanticipated. “It’s overwhelming to see such kind of reception, it’s first of a kind for all of us… Today I can actually feel it is such a huge thing back home. I am sure the girls would have enjoyed being received like that. This is just the beginning of good times for Indian women’s cricket,” she told reporters on Wednesday.
You could make out that both the public reception and media response made a difference to some of the players in the team. There were huge grins, some guffaws at particularly odd questions (more on that later) but the overwhelmingly positive reception was, although perhaps unexpected for them, well deserved. The team may have finished as runners-up by nine runs, but the vast coverage and live telecast of the matches at prime time, have opened a window for the growth of women’s cricket in India.
Raut, who top-scored with 86 in the final, actually thanked the people for it. “Really liked it though we didn’t expect, deserve kari hain humari ladkiyan [the girls deserve it] so thank you so much,” she said.
Talking to The Field, Smriti Mandhana said the team wasn’t even aware of how their performances were being received back home in the last month. “It was insane, I was almost pushed and I thought I will get one more knee injury,” she said describing the scene at the airport in the early hours of the morning.
“We saw such a reception for the first time as a woman cricketer and I hope we continue the same performance and we get the same reception always,” Madhana told The Field.
But despite the largely positive response, the press conference wasn’t without its share of gaffes from the media. The players took it sportingly, but it was evident that was a side effect of not having enough exposure to women’s cricket.
Question: “Are you happy with the 50 lakh prize money from BCCI? If not, what would you want from the BCCI?”
Raj: (Laughs) Ask them [the younger girls] the question, I have been playing from 1999 when there were no monetary benefits.
Question: How was the experience playing at Lord’s?
Goswami: It’s every cricketer’s dream to play a final at Lord’s... I have been there as a visitor and player before... India have always enjoyed a good run at Lord’s.
Note: Before the final at Lord’s, she has played two other ODIs there against England, even though they weren’t very successful outings.
Do you always bat like that [referring to Harmanpreet’s unbeaten 171] ?
Harmanpreet: I like batting like that, I have been playing like that since I was a child...
Note: She scored a penultimate ball six in the World Cup Qualifiers final to win it by one wicket, just a glimpse of her overall attacking game.
While none of these questions were as bad as the now-infamous “who is your favourite male player?”, it clearly showed that there is a lot more to learn and assimilate when it comes to women’s cricket, even by the media. And India’s remarkable performance in the World Cup should spur improved media coverage as well, both broadcast and reporting.
It wasn’t immediate though. India’s unexpected win against eventual champions England in the very first match did get people talking, especially about Mandhana’s match-winning 90. But the buzz was still measured.
But all of this changed when India notched a convincing win in the do-or-die against New Zealand. This must-win clash wasn’t going to be telecast at first, but the decision was reversed at the last minute. This gripped the nation’s imagination.
Then came Harmanpreet’s blistering 171 not out, which powered India to a win against World No 1 Australia in the semifinal – shown on prime time television across the country. It convinced whoever needed convincing, that women’s cricket was not only immensely watchable, but also had an audience. In other words, women’s cricket is, for now, is marketable.
Live coverage and fan following is the start, endorsements and sponsorship will be next step and soon we could see these players in advertisements. That’s the potential impact of their performance.
As Raj said, this is probably one of those rare times when a team sport has garnered so much attention, other than men’s cricket. “I am happy that we have defined a woman’s sport in India, especially a team sport. I would love to see many more women’s sport, team sport coming into limelight. This is probably the beginning.”
This beginning is evident from the produced package during the final, the front page headlines and even the reception at the airport. Even if they fell nine runs short of the trophy, the women’s team won a lot – a bigger audience in the cricket-crazy India.