It ended with a whimper, a 138-run defeat against a team that they hadn’t lost to in 17 previous meetings. For India’s women, the World Cup lasted a little over a week, if you count today’s seventh-place play-off against Pakistan, scant consolation for two teams that finished bottom of their first-round groups.
There have been no reports of any effigies being burnt. I’ve not seen any angst-filled hour-long discussions on TV, or columns linking the defeat to Sri Lanka with national shame. That can only be a good thing. But when it comes to women’s cricket, it’s also a sign of apathy.
In the days ahead, there will doubtless be an embittered former player or two that takes shots at the girls and the management set-up that failed to deliver results despite a favourable format. With India out of the equation, it also remains to be seen what sort of media coverage the final ten days of the tournament receive.
It was hard to look at Mithali Raj’s despondent face after the Sri Lanka defeat, and not think of Rahul Dravid six years earlier at the Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad, when India’s World Cup campaign lasted all of a week. Then, as now, everything that could go wrong did. Key players failed, and unfancied opposition sides lifted their games dramatically.
This Indian women’s side boasts of two of the greatest players in the game’s history. Jhulan Goswami, with 152 ODI wickets, is second only to Cathryn Fitzpatrick, while Mithali is in fourth place on the runs’ list, with only Charlotte Edwards among current players ahead of her.
But if you’re not a cricket journalist or an obsessive follower of the game, you’re unlikely to recognise either. In the men’s game, those with barely a decent IPL season to commend them, grace billboards and magazine centrespreads. Mithali has 600-odd followers on Twitter. Ravindra Jadeja has 31,000, most of them intent on abusing him.
It’s not just an Indian problem either. In Colombo last October, I covered the semifinals and final of the Women’s World Twenty20. During an innings break, a group of us was talking of how good some of the players were. Out of the blue, one of them said of a prominent player: “She’s a big lesbian”.
I have no idea what a ‘big lesbian’ is. The player concerned, whatever her sexuality, is certainly not built like a WWE wrestler. I also know that no one would look at, say, Chris Gayle and say: “He’s a big heterosexual”.
Sport remains one of the last bastions of sexism and homophobia. While watching the Super Bowl in the early hours of Monday morning, I cheered when Jacoby Jones left Chris Culliver trailing in his wake on his way to another touchdown for the Baltimore Ravens – this despite the fact that I’ve supported the 49ers for nearly three decades. Culliver’s anti-gay remarks in the build-up to the game were so contemptible that I can only hope others felt the same way.
For every Steve Davies, who had the courage to be open about who he really was, there must be dozens of others who are afraid to come out because they fear a Culliver-like reaction from teammates.
In general though, homophobic slurs are saved for private occasions. That’s certainly not the case with sexist jibes. How often have you come across a game of cricket, whether in the street or on a field, where “bowling like a woman” or “catching like a girl” is one of the insults? I know I have.
When a woman loves sport, it’s not uncommon to hear her referred to as a “guy’s girl”, as though being a woman and being passionate about sport are somehow mutually exclusive. It’s the same mindset that associates pink with girls and blue with boys.
In some societies, the gender stereotyping begins almost as soon as a child is out of the womb. My little girl has soft toys and a doll or two. She also has a small plastic cricket bat, and balls of various shapes and sizes. Hopefully, when she’s older, she’ll be able to partake in impromptu cricket games without being treated like an object of curiosity.
It’s convenient to lash out at the BCCI for lack of support for the women’s game, or to criticise corporates who ignore the likes of Mithali and Jhulan. But the change has to begin elsewhere, with parents who worry about daughters not being “fair and lovely” if they get too much sun while playing sport. It has to come from people celebrating the achievements of a Mithali rather than some one-season wonder. It has to come from us vigorously resisting any ideas that suggest women playing sport is against our culture, tradition, religion or other assorted nonsense.
The women didn’t play an ODI between July, when they toured England, and the week before the start of the World Cup. No woman is part of the BCCI’s Technical Committee, or its Tour, Programme and Fixture Committee. Maybe it’s time they were. Maybe it’s time we stopped acting as though we were doing these girls a favour by providing them comparable facilities.
It’s also a surprise that no IPL franchise has yet thought of doing anything that will increase participation among the millions of young women that follow the game in this country. A four-team mini league could be a start, with matches played in the afternoon before the men contested an 8pm game. With the next two World Twenty20 tournaments to be played in Asia, it would be perfect preparation.
Such measures may come too late for the Mithali-Jhulan generation, but we owe it to the girls coming through. As Will Davies wrote in his blog for the Wall Street Journal, “I can’t be alone in wanting to see Mithali Raj advertising cricket bats and power drinks. Heck, even cement – that’s what all the male cricketers seem to endorse. Anything that raises the profile of the game and empowers India’s female population should be welcomed and encouraged.”
We often glibly compare India’s love of cricket with the Brazilian passion for football. We shouldn’t. When Brazil’s women beat the United States in the final of the Pan American Games in 2007, a crowd of 68,000 watched them at the Maracana. 68,000. Afterwards, Marta – the star of the side who was also FIFA World Player of the Year five times in a row – had her feet imprinted in cement at the stadium.
As for batting like a girl, I’d have given pretty much anything to play with the style and panache that Mithali has shown for more than a decade.