In 2005, a 13-year-old Veda Krishnamurthy waited impatiently at the side of the dais, fighting off her fellow academy players for a chance to present bouquets to Mithali Raj and Nooshin Al Khadeer, the India stars being felicitated at the Karnataka Institute of Cricket in Bangalore for reaching the final of the Women’s World Cup that year.
Twelve years later, she was on the other side. It was “déjà vu” for her when on Sunday (August 20), she joined the duo, as well as Mamatha Maben, Karuna Jain, Robin Uthappa and Sunil Joshi, on stage before a large crowd of KIOC students and their parents, as she helped throw open new facilities and was recognised for being part of another team that took India to the World Cup final.
This time too there were impressionable young girls in cricket jerseys on the sidelines, scrambling for a chance to get close to their idols, dreaming about hitting those same heights and hoping one day to do what is as yet unaccomplished: win a World Cup for India.
Given how the batch of 2017 has captured the imagination of the nation after their run in England last month – especially since much of it was televised – the excitement this time around was amplified, the selfie and autograph requests unceasing.
The scenes were remarkable on two counts: first, it is rare that six India Women players across generations take centre stage in a non-BCCI event. Second, the impression they were leaving on upcoming players, boys and girls, was indelible; a whole new generation was being inspired – and we all know what role models can do for fledgling cricket careers.
“It means a lot to see them here,” said Debasmita Dutta, 21, and Chandu V, 23, Karnataka players. Dutta, a B.Com student, looks up to Raj, while Chandu, studying for her PUC exams, considers Jain an inspiration. “We feel proud that we’re with them. We feel now that we have to follow them.”
— Mamatha Maben (@MabenMaben) August 20, 2017
Dutta and Chandu, like Veda and Vanitha VR, the India opener, train at KIOC, as did Maben, a former India captain; Al Khadeer, the offspinner, who has 100 ODI wickets to her name; and Jain, the former wicketkeeper-batter. Raj too has spent time here, most recently during the home series against South Africa in Bangalore. It is a reminder of the role that KIOC, and its founder Irfan Sait played in backing women’s cricket.
Much has been said and written – not least in these pages here, here and here – about the lack of structural support for young girls who are keen on pursuing cricket. Yet, there have been some centres that are steady champions of the women’s game in the country and come up frequently in conversations with the players: in Moga, Sangli, Pune, Agra and Guntur, for instance – and KIOC in Bangalore.
Maben remembers her early troubles finding a club that would allow her to play with the boys and hone her skills. “Irfan (then part of Swastic Union Cricket Club) was one of the first who welcomed women,” she recalled. “Before Swastic, I went to another club. I used to stand there the whole day and in the very last, sir used to call me and give me batting. I used to get to bat maybe twice a week.
“But with Irfan, it was the opposite. I used to say, ‘Sir, don’t [make me play] those bowlers, they’re too quick.’ But he said, ‘Just keep quiet, you’ll get hit once or twice, then you’ll get used to it.’ Within a couple of years, I ended up playing for the country.”
“I didn’t want to be just part of celebrity men’s cricket. I wanted cricket,” explained Sait, who was also part of the Women’s Cricket Association of India before BCCI took over the running of the women’s game. “Be it men, women, children, adult, stars, it didn’t matter to me. I loved the game. I have even done deaf and dumb cricket. Actually I am in love with cricket, not one part or the other.”
Preparing for the First Match at the New KIOC! pic.twitter.com/d5S6jOYxMc
— KIOC Cricket (@Kioc_cricket) July 31, 2017
Several women speak of the role Sait has played in convincing their parents to let them play. Those who play at the state level get to use the facilities and train for free – a big support for a group of players that are among the worst paid in Indian cricket. And of course, its glittering alumni – CM Gautam, Uthappa and Manish Pandey are among the men who made it big – serve to boost the profile of the club as it builds its new, paying pipeline.
“He (Sait) knows what we require,” said Dutta, who after coming down from Meghalaya for a summer camp stayed put in the city. “You’ll get clubs (for girls), but none as good as this club,” insisted Chandu, who both train for free.
But even Sait, despite his years in the game and all his personal effort, could not have imagined the impact India’s latest World Cup outing has had. His youngest wards couldn’t get enough of India’s latest cricket stars.
“This is something that we have never experienced in the past. I have been involved with women’s cricket since 1983, but I have never seen this happen,” he said, even as Raj was mobbed for more photos. “This is thanks to the efforts the girls put in the World Cup. Like the 1983 World Cup for men, this has changed the entire scenario for women.”
Indeed, there are few sights that drive home the romanticism of cricket more than that of little kids turning up at nets much too early on a cloudy weekend morning, dragging behind them parents and cricket kits that reach the knees. Maben remembered Vanitha as one of those youngsters once, lugging around a bat much too large for her. In the one girl, not more than 3 feet tall, who boldly walked up to their group and asked them to sign her bat, Maben would have seen that the cycle is strong. Things are same, yet oh so promisingly different.
With inputs from Sidhanta Patnaik