If women’s cricket in India was in need of a champion to espouse its cause and to elevate it to dernier cri, it found one in the form of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Not content with tweeting good wishes to each individual player before the recent World Cup final, he produced a similar tweet-storm more recently after meeting the team on its return. And in case the message hadn’t gotten through, he dedicated the latest episode of his radio show Mann ki Baat to the cause.

Talking of, and directly to, the khiladi betiyaan who had brought garv to the country, he used his bully pulpit to brush aside any undercurrents of disappointment at the defeat. “Look,” he says he told the team, “this is the age of the media. So expectations get hyped up to such an extent that if corresponding success is not achieved, these turn into despair and even resentment.” He advised the players to shrug off any sense of despair, and reminded them that they had succeeded in winning the hearts of 1.25 billion Indians. His own thoughts resonate, says the game’s presiding deity Sachin Tendulkar, with those of the PM.

Champions of their own rights

Not that the khiladi betiyaan are backward when it comes to speaking up for themselves. At a recent BCCI-organised reception the team’s wise captain (thank you Tunku Varadarajan) and its vice captain eschewed the de rigueur expressions of gratitude to the board, and spoke instead to the pressing needs of the women’s game. We need to play more Tests, said Mithali Raj, who for the better part of two years now has also pitched, at every available opportunity, for an IPL-type tournament for women. Harmanpreet Kaur asked that more T20 games be organised so younger players could gain much-needed exposure and expertise.

What they did not speak about is as illuminating as what they did ask for: neither Raj nor Kaur nor any member of the women’s team asked for material rewards; they did not use the opportune moment to ask that their long-delayed contracts be pushed through and their pay scales upgraded — a contrast to the men who, earlier this year, ventriloquised their dissatisfaction with their upgraded contracts through then coach Anil Kumble and then coach-in-waiting Ravi Shastri, among others. “Peanuts,” Shastri called the upgraded contract of Rs 2 crore per year for the top players, which begs the question somewhat: with which legume would Shastri compare the Rs 15 lakh that a Mithali Raj, a Harmanpreet Kaur get in a year?

In passing, the most bizarre aspect of the contracts awarded to women is this: Four top players get Rs 15 lakh a year and another seven players get Rs 10 lakh annually. Do the math: that is just eleven players on contract, where a playing team consists of twelve. And even these contracts (peanuts, you would have called it had Shastri not appropriated it on behalf of the men) are afterthoughts.

All talk, no action

In November 2006, the BCCI took over from the Women’s Cricket Association of India the responsibility of running the game. One of its first acts was to cancel the Under-16 tournament the WCAI had instituted. The women asked for it back; they asked, too, for an Under-25 tournament and for an increase in domestic matches. Years later, in August 2014, the BCCI finally relented: domestic ODI matches were increased from the existing four, to eight. Yeah, that is eight games a year. And yes, that is despite the board’s then chief administrative officer Ratnakar Shetty promising, back in January 2013, that from 2014 onwards the domestic competition would be increased to ten games. The request for age-group competitions was trashed.

Image: ICC
Image: ICC

The long-promised contracts, meanwhile, were finally handed out in 2015, and duly expired in October 2016. Seven months later, the board said new central contracts had been finalised and would be signed once the players returned from their then ongoing tour of South Africa. The players returned. The contracts failed to materialise. The players went to England for the World Cup, and have since returned to acclaim from the prime minister and sundry lesser celebrities. There is no word, still, on whether the contracts will come and if so, when. It is coming, says the board. So too is Christmas.

When it comes to women’s cricket, unconscionable delay characterises the functioning of the BCCI. A case in point, to cherry-pick from an embarrassment of plenty, is the inaugural edition of the Women’s Super League held in England in July-August 2016. As early as January of that year, the ECB sent letters to full members of the ICC, seeking permission to enlist women cricketers from their respective countries.

Four months later, in mid-April, then BCCI secretary Anurag Thakur said the board was yet to discuss the issue. “We are thinking of something on those lines (a franchise-based T20 tournament) within the BCCI as well,” Thakur said. “We will decide on it (allowing Indian women to participate in the Women’s Super League) at the board meeting at the end of the month.” By then, however, the 18 available overseas slots were filled with players from the West Indies and elsewhere, and the Indian women missed out.

“We communicated with the BCCI, as we did with all other boards,” ECB head of women’s cricket Claire Connor said at the time. “They made their own decision that they were not going to put players forward or share their contact details.” (Which is not, note, the impression Thakur had given.) It is not just that the BCCI won’t pay the women a fair wage; it is also that it will to the extent possible deny the best of them an opportunity to earn money elsewhere. Dogs and mangers come irresistibly to mind.

Let the girls play

Despite such systemic neglect, despite the serial apathy, it is not moolah however that the likes of Raj and Kaur are concerned with, but opportunity.

Give us more Tests, says Raj. The women’s team, since debuting on the international stage in October 1976 against the West Indies, has played 36 Tests till date; its last Test was on November 16, 2014 against the South African women (which, by the way, India won by an innings and 34 runs). Raj herself, arguably among the best players in the world, made her Test debut in January 2002 and, over the next 14 years, has played a grand total of ten Tests.

The likes of Raj and Kaur have consistently claimed for their peers the opportunity to play, to showcase their skills and to improve in the heat of competition at the domestic and international levels. The men have a Future Tours Program, a schedule, to tell them who they are playing this time next year; the women however have neither a program, nor a schedule, nor any sense of what the future holds.

More apathy

The BCCI’s response to Raj’s repeated calls for a women’s version of the IPL is illuminating:

It is necessary, a board official is quoted as saying, to first prepare the grassroots. Yes but how, if you gut age-group cricket, promise a measly ten domestic games at the senior level and then cut it down further to eight? Ironically, the same board official shoves the blame off onto broadcasters, suggesting that more international and domestic games need to be televised to prep the ground for an IPL-type tournament. How television is supposed to telecast games when the board won’t schedule any, the official forgot to explain.

The fans have been taken in, will the officials follow?

A ‘top’ board official says “The Board welcomes the idea (of a women’s version of the IPL) but there are many hurdles and the biggest involves having a pool of players who would meet international standards.” Which is as good an example of a circular argument as you will find: we don’t have enough cricketers because we don’t play enough because we don’t have enough cricketers because… It also flies in the face of the oft-cited raison d’être of the IPL — that it has helped unearth a vast talent pool of quality players.

In other words, IPL for the men because it unearths talent; no IPL for women because there is not enough talent.

Double standards?

“It would be a huge embarrassment if the tournament does not take off,” the official argues. “Let us not hurry into such a venture and repent if it fails” — an argument that is typical of a board that has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. After all, the board was adamantly cold to the one day format, playing a total of 40 ODIs in the nine years since its debut in 1974. After the national team won the World Cup against all odds in 1983, however, the board embraced the format with all the fervour of a neo-convert, even cancelling previously scheduled Tests in order to squeeze in a couple more ODIs.

It was the same story with T20s. At an ICC board meeting in March 2006 that discussed a World T20 competition, then BCCI honorary secretary Niranjan Shah was manifestly underwhelmed. “Twenty20? Why not Ten-ten or Five-five or One-one?,” he scoffed, on behalf of a board then totally in thrall to one-day cricket’s money-spinning possibilities. “India will never play T20.” Had the board not been pushed by the threat of the Indian Cricket League and of India’s victory in the inaugural World T20 championship in 2007, the IPL would be languishing, still, in one of the BCCI’s many committees.

Shah’s response was typical of a board with its head stuck deep in antediluvian sand, a board that at every turn has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the present. (While on which, I remember once discussing the players’ demand for a video camera and a laptop with then board secretary Jaywant Lele. “Arre yaar!,” he said, exasperation manifest. “Bat diya hai, ball diya hai, cricket khelne ke liye unko aur kya kya chahiye?!”)

Recent reports speak of the BCCI’s intransigence over the issue of incorporating cricket as an Olympic sport. Stated reasons include board officials wanting to pay the ICC back for the latter’s tough line in recent revenue negotiations and, significantly, the calculus that it can, in the fortnight an Olympics lasts, book its team into some bilateral series and earn more money (Hey, there is always Sri Lanka). The calculation leaves the men’s game unaffected — they earn, whether they play in the Olympics or in some pointless bilateral. It is the women’s game that is affected — they lose one of the already limited opportunities to showcase their skills on a global stage.

The Indian men have, thanks to successive generations of activist players, hauled the BCCI into a semblance of modernity. The women’s game however continues to languish, thanks in large part to the lack of a voice at the board’s high table. Back in 2016 former captain Diana Edulji, who six months later would be named to the Committee of Administrators, pointed to this. “We need someone to listen to us,” she said then. “There is a women’s committee in the BCCI but most of them are not players. Women’s cricket needs a little push and I think this is the right time for it.”

Where do we go from here?

The media has tried to do its little bit. One of the most passionate, articulate voices is that of former state-level cricketer turned columnist Anupriya Singh, who has written of the women’s game with anger, with despair, with frustration, and even with a hoping-against-hope optimism that, however, was speedily belied. More recently my friend, the former India fast bowler Snehal Pradhan, provided the BCCI with a thoughtful, calibrated, comprehensive roadmap to the future.

Just let them play? (Image: Bibhash Chatterjee / Scroll.in)
Just let them play? (Image: Bibhash Chatterjee / Scroll.in)

In the face of the floodtide of goodwill towards the women’s game, though, the BCCI continues to do what it does best: delay. Cue this telling clip: “As of now, the Board is planning to form a committee that would include the current captain, coach, some former players, to suggest ways of adding a couple of events to the women cricket’s (sic) annual calendar.”

Typical — when faced with a decision you don’t want to take, form a committee, let it study, and report, and let the report be studied, and be forwarded for further study by another committee… At first sight, this seems of a piece with the BCCI’s patented tactics of delay most recently seen in matters relating to the Lodha Committee — but as the archetypal civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby tells Jim Hacker in an episode from Yes Minister, ‘I wouldn’t call Civil Service delays “tactics”, Minister. That would be to mistake lethargy for strategy.’

Hope is a good thing

So here we are, now, full of the yeasty goodwill acquired via television coverage that reminded us of the blindingly obvious: that women’s cricket is as compelling, sometimes even more so, than the men’s version. Blindingly obvious, that is, to commentators, to potential investors, to players past and present, and to a record audience thirsting for more. There is expectation, and frustration, and anger, and despair.

What is missing is hope — the hope that at last now, at least now, things will change for the better.

Maybe if there was a groundswell of public opinion? Maybe if Diana Edulji, who not so long ago lamented the lack of a voice at the BCCI high table and who, as a member of the CoA is now that voice, were to use it vigorously on behalf of her successor generation? Maybe if the men cricketers, past and present, were to speak up on behalf of the female counterparts whose deeds they routinely extol on social media and whose needs they are silent about? Maybe if the prime minister were to do another Mann ki Baat, this time addressed to the BCCI on behalf of the khiladi betiyaan of whom he is a recent, and fervid, admirer?

The audacity of hope.