Wednesday, October 18, 2017

When they came out of the shadows and became stars in their own right


What marked the India-England final of Women World Cup ’17 at the emblematic Lord’s on July 23 was the paradoxical surge of sentiment across India for the losing team because England won, and India lost, by nine runs, India’s 219 all out in 48.4 overs to England’s 228 for 7, by a rather narrow margin. It was nerve-wracking only in a limited sense because it was a slightly unequal contest. The Indian team which blazed its way to the final appeared a bundle of nerves, and captain Mithali Raj was the only one who kept her cool. It seemed that the better team lost because it was quite visible that Indian team lost not because it was outplayed but because it dithered. This would not of course take away from the glory of the winning English team because holding nerves is indeed part of the ways of winning.

The question remains as to why did India the ostensibly cricket-crazy country wake up to the exploits of its women cricket team on the day it had lost the crown? The Indian fans have never been known to have ever forgiven losers. The first time the national team faced the fury of the crowds was when Ajit Wadekar’s team lost the England series in 1974 after their 1971 series win. The fans turned up in Bombay with garlands of shoes to welcome Wadekar’s team after they were given rousing reception after their return in 1971. The memory lasted well into the 21st century when Sachin Tendulkar had to appeal to the fans during the 2003 World Cup finals for calm and restraint on the part of the spectators. Yes. Cricket became a game of spectator frenzy in the fashion of the roaring multitudes watching gladiatorial battles in the Roman arena. But in stark contrast, the Indian cricket fans sighed and saluted and gave a grand ovation to the losing women’s team on July 23, 2017. The violent streak had disappeared and in its place there was quiet appreciation and genuine admiration for the effort to have reached the finals.

There is much to write about Mithali Raj and her team, and there is as much to write about the appreciative fans. It would be tempting to analyse the social psychology of the many thousands who quietly discovered the new constellation of the national women cricket team. (It has always seemed hyperbole and a lie of the television anchors when they screamed about cricket being the religion of billion plus India.) The thousands had always wanted the Indian team to win and it did not matter whether they played cricket or not. But the cricket fans’ response to the women’s team moved away from the frenzy of wanting merely to win.
The women cricketers have created a hush in the way they played the game. They played fiercely as can be seen in the batting of Harmanpreet Kaur, Veda Krishnamurthy, Smriti Mandhana, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, and the bowling of Jhulan Goswami. Somewhere, unknowingly, they have brought back the poise and gentleness to cricket, and the game’s followers unknowingly were impressed by it, even overwhelmed. There was not the usual adrenalin. In its place there was the game of wits, nerves and the slow motion physical grace. And in it all there was innocence, an unmistakable radiance. There was exultation in the minds of the fans without the ugly contortions that intoxication generates.

The women cricketers seemed to have restored to the game some of its Edenic state, where the game was played for the pleasures it afforded and it was liked for that very reason, the state of game which was reflected in Neville Cardus’ meditative and evocative prose. It is not just the Indian team, but also the other seven teams which exuded that prelapsarian state of being. But unlike with the other teams where victories are not easily turned into national obsessions and degenerate into neurotic commercial ambitions as in India, the Indian women’s team stands at the edge where the game could be transformed into the evil alchemic of winning advertising contracts.

Many of the cricket administrators in India and elsewhere are seriously pondering how the spark of Women’s World Cup of 2017 could be turned into a gold rush because the men’s game is getting jaded, where the money is slowly ebbing away and there is need for something new to sell and there is the compulsion of bringing in something new into the marketing of the game. The danger lurks closely to the surface, and Team Mithali Raj could be sucked into the glitzy vortex.

It would be naïve to expect that women’s cricket should remain unchanged or that it will retain its simplicity that it has today. But now is the time to savour the moment before the arc-lights sweep away the clear and unvarnished images of the players on and off the field. It took more than a decade after the 1983 World Cup triumph for the men cricketers to be selling soaps, toothpaste, energy drinks on billboards and on television. The change could happen faster in the case of women cricketers. And it is unfortunate that it will happen in India more than in any other cricketing country.

But even in the middle of the whirl and whorl of change in the game, it should be possible for the cricketers – men and women, boys and girls – and for cricket writers to pause and indulge in the Wordsworthian moment of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” to look at the 2017 Women’s World Cup and feel the joy of cricket being played in the spirit of the game, a mere game unconnected with nationalist vainglory and even the vulgar desire of creating soulless monumental records. Mithali Raj’s 6000 runs in One Day Internationals, and Harmanpreet Kaur’s 171 in 115 balls remain individual achievements as that of that of a Walter Hammond or a Vinoo Mankad, peaks of excellence that do not a cast a long shadow on generations of players to come.

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