Akanksha Kohli gave up a future in tennis for cricket. She then gave up a job at a leading global retailer to pursue the sport.
Those are decisions she’s made peace with. They’ve brought her as far as the Karnataka state team, where she’s a senior medium pacer, and allowed her to make a career of a passion that began on the streets of Amritsar.
That career, however, doesn’t give much back.
“We played for one thing alone: the love of the game,” Shubhangi Kulkarni, a former India Women captain and administrator, wrote in Wisden India Almanack 2017, in an essay celebrating 40 years of international women’s cricket in the country.
“We travelled by unreserved train and stayed in dormitories,” remembered Shantha Rangaswamy, India Women’s first captain, during the BCCI awards function this year, accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award, a rare official acknowledgement of India’s female cricketers. “I dedicate the award to pioneers in women’s cricket who played when there was little incentive.”
Forty-odd years since the trailblazers lit up the path for young women to follow, much has changed. Recently, the BCCI extended a one-time monetary benefit to former internationals. Travel by unreserved train has made way for travel by flight (mostly), and where there were dorms, there are star hotels (again, mostly). But as far as incentives go, for those like Kohli, they are as piddly as ever.
Women in India still play cricket for little more than the love of the game. And where the pioneers may have earned the right to wear that as a badge of honour, that players today are still expected to do so is harmful to the game and the women playing it.
Eleven India Women players have central contracts of Rs 15 lakh or Rs 10 lakh. Or at least, they did for 2015-16; well into 2017 there has been no word on their renewal. The Railways offer jobs to a small number of the 400-odd women playing first-class cricket in any season. But for the 26 other teams, the numbers are dire.
A senior domestic player at the first-class level spends her year preparing for nine matches and expects to bring home around Rs 30,000 for her efforts.
That’s Rs 2500 a month for a year of playing domestic cricket in India.
What a domestic player gets
DA | match fees | insurance | kit bag | hotel stay during tournaments | travel to tournaments | some meals
What a domestic player doesn’t get
Regular salary | contracts | allowance during camps | equipment | pension | some meals
A junior player who features in the Under-19 tournaments and the Under-23 tournaments does relatively better, as do those who get picked for the two inter-zonal competitions. A promising youngster, for instance, could make up to a lakh a year.
For perspective, that’s how much your Uber driver will say he makes in a couple of months. A Ranji Trophy cricketer without an IPL contract makes up to Rs 12 lakh a year.
The problem for the women is two-fold: too few games and too little money for each game.
“You’re slogging, you’re doing fitness and putting that hard work in the nets all year for five games,” says Kohli, talking about the group stage of the senior one-day tournament. “Your zone selection is based on those 50-over games – I don’t know if T20 performances count. Some pools have four games, some pools have five. That is a very sad thing. That your entire season of four-five months depends on those five games.”
And she’s not even referring to the money: Each day of play in BCCI tournaments brings match fees of Rs 3500. If you’re not in the playing XI, you get half of that.
The DA divide
In such a situation, the dearness allowance (DA) given to the players becomes a big deal.
Everybody gets excited about DA, those Wisden India spoke to told us. This is anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 1000 a day (depending on the association’s largesse) for the duration of a tournament (and tournaments only; players attend pre-season camps on their own dime). For those girls with financial responsibilities and those travelling from tier II cities to the cricket centres, this is important.
“I know so many girls who don’t spend their DA,” says Kohli. “They will not eat enough – they have to eat, playing a 50-over game in these conditions is not easy – saying I need to save up, I need to give it to help my family. They don’t play with a fresh mind, they are stressed, there’s the pressure of performance, thinking about the XI, thinking about the family, thinking about saving that Rs 500.”
Adding to that stress is the fear of being benched, which is both opportunity and income lost.
“Cricket is more a mental game now,” explains Kohli. “If you’re not mentally fit, you will not survive for a one-day game. Some of them play with the fear of failure: ‘If I’m not going to play or perform, they are going to make me sit out in the next game. And if I sit out in the next game, then my match fee becomes half.’ Nobody will tell you this is what I’m thinking, but you can tell. There are young, 22-year-old cricketers who are coming up, but they’re so scared.”
The support system
Kohli, who helps her mother at the family boutique in her free time while her sisters handle a construction business, is the first to admit she’s one of the lucky ones. Her decision to pursue cricket has the full support of her family, but it’s not a decision someone else with bills to pay and loans to clear can afford to make.
“I know so many girls who don’t spend their DA. They will not eat enough – they have to eat, playing a 50-over game in these conditions is not easy – saying I need to save up, I need to give it to help my family. They don’t play with a fresh mind, they are stressed, there’s the pressure of performance, thinking about the XI, thinking about the family, thinking about saving that Rs 500.”
Like Kohli, a player learns soon enough that balancing training six days a week, tournaments and a private-sector job is unsustainable. The leave needed takes a toll: “I had reached a stage where they had asked me to quit (cricket),” remembers Kohli. Three years in, she gave up her job. “It was one of the biggest decisions I had to make. Even if you have family support, you can’t feed on that for the rest of your life – my mum is a single mother, who’s been taking care of three of us for 15-16 years. I chose cricket as my career, because I didn’t want to have regrets that I didn’t give it my 100 per cent.”
A former teammate she recruited went the other way, giving up cricket for a career in the corporate world.
So what is a player to do to support herself while keeping her cricket dreams alive?
The advantage of playing for the love of the game is that it comes with the culture of paying it forward. Kohli practises at the Karnataka Institute of Cricket run by Irfan Sait, who she says allows female players, especially at the state level, to use the facilities and get coached for free.
India players hand down their gear to youngsters who need it and, like in the Dhoni movie, having somebody speak for you with a sports brand might land you a contract for a kit.
Besides, if there’s someone in the team who has a shot at a job in the Railways, everybody comes together to make it happen. And some, like the Andhra Cricket Association, offer young trainees at their academy a basic stipend.
Securing the future
At Railways, the only ‘BCCI-approved’ employer of female cricketers in the country, players enjoy the security of a government job, regular time off for playing and rewards for doing it well. But, joining the Railways isn’t easy. Jobs are available only in certain cities and competition is high for places in the playing XI. If the player doesn’t make it to the main Railways team and the Railways doesn’t object, she can continue representing her state. Else, she will be doing just another 9-6 job.
Given their benefits, Railways have become the most successful team in the domestic circuit, leading to a skewed and unequal domestic circuit, which in turn slows down the development of the international side.
“The BCCI should use its clout and get corporates to form teams and give jobs,” Rangaswamy had told Wisden India. “That will not only help more than 500 cricketers be financially secure, but also make the domestic competition more balanced.”
Australia’s New South Wales side made history by becoming the first domestic side to be fully professional, offering their players competitive, assured annual wages. That should be the aim in India as well, and any revenue sharing model should pay more than lip service to female players. State associations would do well to assure their players of financial security by accommodating them in roles in development programmes, outreach initiatives and cricket academies. Apart from simply paying them respectable wages.
For, when the BCCI, granted $293 million, are fighting for their “fair share” of ICC revenue, and Ravi Shastri says a Rs 2 crore contract is peanuts, and Rising Pune Supergiant spend Rs 14.5 crore on Ben Stokes, and the Indian men’s team get Rs 1 crore each as bonus – all numbers that despite the many zeroes are perfectly defendable, well deserved even – the irony is inescapable. If Akanksha Kohli, a woman representing her state, is earning 0.2% (and that by charitable estimates) of what Virat Kohli, a man representing his country gets paid, cricket in the country is broken.
With inputs from Sidhanta Patnaik.