Soon after Mick Jagger, a long-time friend, introduced him to cricket, Sir Paul Getty fell in love with the sport. Knighted in 1986 for his contribution to cricket, art and the Conservative Party, Getty gave shape to his passion by building a replica of the Oval at his 2500-acre Wormsley Park estate in Buckinghamshire. The venue is surrounded by foliage on three sides, the fourth side has the Chiltern Ridge. This picturesque set-up will be the backdrop on Wednesday (August 13) against which the Mithali Raj-led India Women resume Test action after eight seasons.
India played the last of their 34 Tests in 2006 when they beat England in the second game in Taunton to win the series 1-0. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had sponsored the tour, and not long after, enveloped the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI), along the lines of International Women’s Cricket Council (IWCC) merging with the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2005.
The coming together of BCCI and WCAI was viewed as a natural route to progress. But while access to the best of facilities and job security has boosted the profile of women’s cricket in India, the calendar has shrunk so much that in the second edition of the Wisden India Almanack, Raj wrote, “We attend more camps than play matches.”
The two-day domestic tournament was discontinued after 2009, and the women have played only 121 international matches – most of them during ICC tournaments – in eight years since coming under the aegis of the BCCI. It has created a bit of an identity crisis for the current crop of Indian cricketers. Apart from Raj and Jhulan Goswami, both of who have been playing international cricket for more than a decade now, Karuna Jain is the only other player in the present squad to have played ‘Test’ cricket.
The first recorded women’s cricket match was staged in 1745, and the White Heather Club in Yorkshire, established in 1887, is the first recognised women’s cricket club. In Skirting The Boundary: A History of Women’s Cricket, Isabelle Duncan writes that in India, girls started playing the sport in Delhi in the 1950s.
Things got serious towards the late 1960s in Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Aloo Bamjee and her husband were proactive in establishing Albees, Mumbai’s first women’s cricket club, in 1969, and they conducted nets at the Cricket Club of India (CCI) on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. Albees was supported by Vijay Merchant and Polly Umrigar, and had in their ranks Nutan Gavaskar, Sunil Gavaskar’s sister, and Tina Lalo, a cousin of Farokh Engineer. Diana Edulji, Albees’s most famous alumni, joined the club in 1971.
Around the same time, in Lucknow, Mahendra Kumar Sharma was starting out as a local sports organiser for handball and softball. In 1973, he had taken the girls from Uttar Pradesh for a national meet to Hyderabad. Seeing a few boys in the cricket nets, the girls sought Mahendra’s permission to try out the sport. It inspired Mahendra to form the WCAI and register it under the Societies Act of Lucknow.
The first senior national women’s championship was held in Pune in April 1973 where only three teams – Maharashtra, Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh, who borrowed the reserves from the Maharashtra squad – took part. A little later, Premalakaki Chavan, the mother of Prithviraj Chavan, who is currently Maharashtra’s chief minister, took over as WCAI president. Chandra Tripathi came on board as chairwoman after the second nationals in Varanasi in December 1973, which had greater participation than the inaugural edition.
Unaware of the state of women’s cricket internationally, Mahendra wrote to the English Women’s Cricket Association (EWCA) about the game’s rising popularity among Indian girls. EWCA, in turn, forwarded the letter to IWCC, and IWCC granted WCAI affiliation. Mahendra then asked BCCI to make WCAI their women’s wing, but his request was declined. Instead, BCCI formed their own women’s body, which was subsequently disbanded after failing to get IWCC recognition.
Mahendra got encouragement from the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, where Lala Amaranth held camps for the girls. Mahendra invited Australia’s Under-25 side to tour India in February 1975 for three three-day matches. State associations conducting the games paid for the expenses, thanks to the generous patronage of the fans.
Even though the Indian girls were in the age group of 16 to 22, they held their own to draw all three matches, Shantha Rangaswamy making the opportunity count the most.
In the first innings of the second match in Delhi, Rangaswamy made 92 and then produced the first milestone moment in the history of women’s cricket in India. Chasing 121 for a win, Australia needed five runs in the final over with four wickets in hand. Rangaswamy, who bowled unchanged, picked up three wickets in six balls, the match ending in a draw with Australia three runs short of the target and their No. 3 batter stranded at the non-striker’s end.
Rangaswamy, who had played badminton and softball for Karnataka before switching over to cricket, was promoted as the vice-captain for the final game at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, where she once again took India to the brink of victory.
In pursuit of 198, India were batting for a draw when Rangaswamy joined Fowzieh Khalili after the fall of the second wicket. Their quick 74-run partnership changed the complexion of the game but both of them were run out, and when play was called off, India were 12 short with five wickets in hand.
When New Zealand came calling, Rangaswamy made a century in Pune, and her positive attitude throughout the four-match series impressed Jasu Patel and Madhavsinh Jagdale, who named her India’s captain for the first ‘Test’ series against West Indies at home in the winter of 1976.
Rangaswamy headed the batting charts for the series, during which India registered their maiden ‘Test’ win at the Moin-ul-Haq Stadium in Patna, and then scored India’s first ‘Test’ hundred against New Zealand in Dunedin. That season, she aggregated 569 runs at 47.41 in eight ‘Tests’. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports awarded her the Arjuna Award in 1976 in recognition of outstanding achievement in national sports despite not receiving a recommendation letter from the WCAI.
Shubhangi Kulkarni and Edulji starred for India with the ball in their win against West Indies in Patna. The spin duo picked up ten wickets between them and Edulji hit the winning runs to spark celebrations in a crowd in excess of 25,000. The jubilation was so emphatic that the journey from the ground to the team hotel took more than an hour.
The script may have been different had Kulkarni not decided to change her bowling style, and had Edulji not persisted with cricket after an on-field accident.
Kulkarni took up hockey when at school in Pune, but was soon attending summer camps organised by WCAI. She played two games against the visiting New Zealanders as a batter and chipped in with her part-time offspin and medium pacers. Before the series against West Indies, she realised that India lacked a legspinner, and tried out legspin in the nets. It did not take her long to hit her straps and, more importantly, earn the confidence of Rangaswamy.
With the West Indians not adept at playing quality spin, Kulkarni mesmerised them with five wickets in the first innings of the first ‘Test’ in Bangalore, and maintained her grip throughout to finish as the best bowler of the series with 23 wickets in five matches. At the Moin-ul-Haq Stadium, she had career-best match figures of 7 for 57. Kulkarni ended her ‘Test’ career with 60 wickets, behind Edulji, India’s highest wicket taker.
Edulji, the face of women’s cricket in India, could have been lost to the game much before she made her international debut.
She excelled in table tennis and basketball at school, but in Mumbai’s railway colony, she was the only girl among the boys in the weekend ‘grudge’ cricket matches. Playing on a matting pitch for the first time, Edulji went forward to a tall bowler and was hit on her face. She lost her front teeth and the top part of the gum. Throughout her career, she played with a denture as the doctors told her that she could not go for a permanent set till her playing career was over because another mishap would have made things more difficult.
Edulji, the last Parsi to play for India, picked up at least one wicket in 30 of her 35 bowls in ‘Test’ cricket and was known for her economical spells, but it is her highly opinionated views that made her stand out from the others.
“Diana is perhaps an enigma. She is the best thing to have happened to women’s cricket in India,” says Rangaswamy of her contemporary. “She could never accept defeat and the urge to win pushed her. She was a very fine left-arm spinner, but most of her success was because she was a smart thinker of the game.”
For India’s first overseas tour – to New Zealand and Australia in 1976-77 – Mahendra requested the state associations from which the players were selected to raise money to meet expenses. The state bodies, in turn, asked the players to chip in, and those who could not afford to pay had to miss the flight.
The WCAI was finally recognised by the Government of India in 1978. That year, India hosted and participated in the World Cup for the first time.
As the game grew in India, Mahendra, the founding secretary, attracted a lot of negative publicity, and politicking within and outside of the WCAI became a regular affair. Mahendra resigned from his post in frustration in 1978. Looking back, he philosophises, “Ladki jawan ho gayi thee, kisi ke ghar tho jana hi thaa (the girl had reached a marriageable age, it was time for her to go to someone else’s house).”
After his exit, India did not play another Test till Australia visited in early 1984.
During the series, Rangaswamy was the catalyst behind another seminal moment in Indian women’s cricket.
At a function during the Delhi ‘Test’ at the residence of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, Rangaswamy casually brought up the possibility of women’s cricket being beamed live. National telecast on colour television had been introduced in India during the 1982 Asian Games, and Gandhi was well aware of its impact. She immediately assigned an official to consider Rangaswamy’s idea, and the next game was shown live.
At the end of the series, Rangaswamy gave up the captaincy
India did not play a ‘Test’ match for more than two years after that, and when they visited England for the first time in 1986, it turned out to be an eventful tour.
On the morning of the first ‘Test’, Kulkarni was told that she would be replacing an injured Edulji as the team’s captain, and she responded with a century. During the course of her innings, she had stands of 106 and 90 for the eighth and ninth wickets respectively to rescue India from 114 for 7. The knock established Kulkarni’s reputation as a supreme allrounder. Showering praise on Kulkarni, Rangaswamy says, “Shubhangi is the best allrounder India has ever produced. She could fit into the Indian team either as a batter or as a bowler.”
Kulkarni’s performance was, however, overshadowed by India’s first tryst with on-field controversy.
Defending 254 on the final day, India engaged in time-wasting tactics. “It was incredible,” The Guardian reported one spectator as saying. “They were sitting down on the pitch, complaining about crowd noise and demanding that cars be moved because of the sun reflecting from their windscreens. English players actually moved some of the cars, and in the end there was a Tannoy announcement asking us all to form a human wall in front of the others to try to get over the problem.”
England managed only 229 for 5 in 61 overs when play was called off, and it did not go down well with Cathy Mowat, the EWCA chairwoman. “I just feel that someone has got to apologise for the unfortunate behaviour of our Indian visitors,” she said in the presentation ceremony, and then gave them a piece of her mind in the Indian dressing room.
The shattered Indian girls demanded a written apology from Mowat, threatening to quit the tour otherwise. “Our players are really, really angry and very upset about what was said by this lady,” said Ashutosh Sharma, the Indian manager on tour.
A day before the second ‘Test’, Ashutosh met Audrey Collins, the EWCA president, and the tour was saved, but not before India’s High Commissioner stepped in to ensure a compromise.
“The apology did come. We also told them that Cathy Mowat shouldn’t travel for the next two ‘Tests’,” remembers Edulji of the incident. “The team was completely united and I still take pride in the way we stood behind each other.”
When play started again, Sandhya Agarwal benefited the most. In the second game, she made 132 and followed it up with a knock of 190 – the highest individual score in the women’s game till then – in the third match.
Those two centuries not only helped Agarwal top the series batting charts, but also became her identity. “Sandhya was a combination of Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid. She could bat for hours, and had a very good technique. Her desire to stay in the middle was unparalleled. She frustrated the bowlers with her tenacity,” says Rangaswamy of the only Indian with more than 1000 Test runs.
After Rangaswamy, Edulji was conferred with the Arjuna Award in 1983, Kulkarni in 1985 and Agarwal in 1986. They, along with Sudha Shah, who played in all of India’s first 21 ‘Tests’ and remains the country’s most capped ‘Test’ cricketer, set the foundation of women’s cricket in India, and an era ended during the 1990-91 Australian tour when Rangaswamy, Edulji, Kulkarni and Shah played ‘Test’ cricket for the last time.
Anju Jain, Purnima Rau and Neetu David made their debut when India played their next Test in New Zealand in early 1995, and the first ‘Test’ of the home series against England the same year was Agarwal’s last appearance, a game in which Anjum Chopra got her maiden cap. With it, the baton was passed on to the next generation.
Rau played her last Test in 1999, and Jain, David and Chopra had to wait for seven years to taste victory when India beat South Africa in Paarl in the nation’s first ‘Test’ after readmission. Outside of this trio, India had a combined experience of eight ‘Tests’ going into the game, but the youngsters showed no nerves on their first tour.
After Chopra won the toss in the one-off game, she and Jain set a solid foundation, and as many as five batters made half-centuries. India batted out 168 overs before declaring on 404 for 9. Forced to follow on, South Africa put up a good performance in the second innings. The ninth-wicket pair of Madelein Lotter and Cri-zelda Britts played out 16 overs and consumed a lot of time in pursuit of a draw.
With a maiden overseas win in sight and just 45 minutes left in the game; Chopra threw the second new ball to Hemlata Kala, a part-time medium pacer. Kala had dismissed Alison Hodgkinson, South Africa’s best player, earlier in the innings, but had never bowled in international cricket before that.
Kala picked up the last two wickets in two overs and finished with figures of 3 for 18, before the opening pair of Chopra and Raj chased down 13 runs in 1.3 overs for India’s first-ever series win.
Like Kala, Raj and Goswami too made strong impressions in the win. Later in the year, Raj boosted her reputation with a double century when India played in England, and Goswami created ripples with her pace.
By the time India travelled to England in 2006, the captaincy mantle had passed from Chopra to Raj, and Goswami and Kala were the only two other surviving members from the Paarl game.
The theme of this tour was fun. The girls gorged on Indian food after the games and spent a lot of time dancing together to loud music in the dressing rooms as an alternative to warm-up drills. The energetic mood reflected on the field of play.
In the first ‘Test’, Kala, Goswami, Rumeli Dhar and Amita Sharma played crucial roles in snatching a draw with just two wickets in hand, and in Taunton, Chopra, Raj and Goswami engineered India’s third Test win.
Chopra made 98, and had partnerships of 136 and 61 with Raj and Dhar respectively, and by the time Isa Guha trapped her in front of the wicket, Chopra’s 371-minute effort had put India in a strong position.
“I have always enjoyed playing in England, but from a batting perspective, the changing weather conditions is a challenge,” says Chopra, reflecting on the knock. “It was a patient innings, especially at a time when it was crucial to also ensure that we don’t lose the game. It suited my style of play and I was in the zone. Rumeli and I kept ten-run targets for us, and maintained a decent run rate so that the pressure was not on us.”
Like in Paarl, the bowlers, this time led by Goswami, sparkled to enforce the follow-on. Charlotte Edwards made 105 in the second innings, but once Goswami had her caught by Chopra, England lost their last seven wickets for 93 runs. Goswami became the first Indian to pick ten wickets in a match, and India chased down 98 with five wickets in hand.
“The mood was tense till we neared the target,” recalls Chopra. “The game’s turning point was when we enforced the follow-on and got their last seven wickets quickly in the second innings.”
Goswami won the Padma Shri award, India’s fourth highest civilian honour, in 2012, and Chopra in 2014. Edulji is the only other female cricketer to have been conferred the honour, in 2002.
Rangaswamy is the present chief national selector. Kulkarni, who was WCAI’s secretary when India made it to the final of the 2005 World Cup and when BCCI took over the women’s body, now owns the popular Sunny’s Sports Boutique in Pune. Shah is the coach of the Indian team, Agarwal and Edulji work for the Railways and Chopra is a media professional. They and all those who played ‘Tests’ before 2006 draw a pension from the BCCI now, but were not paid during their playing careers. But ‘Test’ cricket was more vibrant in their time than it is now.
Since November 2006, England and Australia have played against each other five times, while South Africa beat Netherlands in a match in July 2007, and neither of West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have played a single game.
With India resuming their Test commitments, the former stalwarts are hopeful that long-form cricket will be back in focus again. “Temporary reversals are fine as long as they are playing because the benefits of ‘Test’ cricket are much more than just results,” says Rangaswamy to put things in perspective. “This might be the start of something new, and hopefully will take India to a time when we were always among the top four nations.”
“I have always wanted to have an independent identity. Now in most of the places I have to introduce myself as an international cricketer, but I hope in future I don’t have to do that and people will recognise me,” Harmanpreet Kaur, one of the emerging stars of the current Indian team, had told this writer once. “While the BCCI has been supportive, I would like more series to be organised so that we gain experience. I want to play ‘Test’ cricket.”
In 1992, when Kaur was just three years old, Getty had said at the inauguration of his ground in Wormsley that it was “the happiest summer since my boyhood”. Kaur and the other Indian girls might feel the same way when they step on to the venue in their whites on August 13.
With inputs from Raf Nicholson, a researcher on the history of women’s cricket in England.