Late Indian cricketer Amritsar Govindsingh Kripal Singh is a popular name in the annals of Chennai’s cricketing history. His ancestors migrated to erstwhile Madras from Amritsar back in the 19th century and have since gone on to cement their place among the city’s cricketing elites. A name oft-forgotten in the family’s fabled history is that of his wife Esmie Kripal Singh.
Esmie, along with others like Comala Gopinath, wife of former India cricketer C.D. Gopinath, late politician Visalakshi Nedunchezhiyan and J.B. Shah, former India captain Sudha Shah’s father, was one of the founding members and vice president of the Tamil Nadu Women’s Cricket Association (TNWCA) in 1973. Esmie passed away on May 29, after battling early onset Alzheimer’s, aged 88.
“My mother’s interest in the sport probably came about after she married dad. My dad used to work for EID Parry (one of India’s oldest manufacturing entities) and we grew up watching him play for them. She would attend every game religiously and kept tabs on what was happening in the sport thereafter. She never played cricket though,” her son Arjan Kripal Singh, a former First-Class cricketer and BCCI match referee, remembers.
CRICKET- SECOND NATURE
“We belonged to a time when cricket teams for women were just beginning to be seen as a possibility. Schools, colleges started seeing the merit of fielding women’s teams,” Malvika Mehra, Esmie’s daughter says. Malvika was herself a junior level cricket player, a left arm spinner, until the pressure of employment forced her away from the sport.
She remembers Esmie to be a warm and encouraging presence who had two non-negotiable conditions – no compromising on academics and getting back home before dark.
“She was a cool mom. She would always encourage us to explore our passions and in a sense took that to the work she did with women’s cricket, with her friends. Backing her was our dad, Kripal Singh, who constantly motivated her to keep going,” Malvika remembers.
“It was taken for granted that you’d play cricket in our household. Whatever be the level. It just happened. That goes for her efforts too. We never had to ask her why she decided to get involved with the TNWCA. Cricket was so automatic in our household and so it was natural for us to see her do what she did,” she adds.
The Singh siblings remember meetings their mother attended with other patrons of women’s cricket. Malvika particularly recollects a trip to Chettinad Palace in RA Puram, where Dr Meena Muthiah, then a committee member of the TNWCA, had called on the others for tea.
BATTLING THE ODDS
Sudha, one of the pioneers of women’s cricket in the country, credits Kripal for much of her cricketing skill.
“We were family friends and Kripal uncle would come home almost every day, and work with me on my cricket,” she says.
“Esmie aunty accompanied the girls on several tours and was almost one among us. She was fun loving! I remember I once had a cold and she offered me a small swig of brandy and hot water. I was so apprehensive but she had little remedies like this, taking care of us when on the road,” Sudha, a teetotaler, remembers.
Sudha’s recollections go beyond the camaraderie. She remembers the committee not being taken too seriously when it banded together.
“Back then, women taking up cricket would often be offered alternatives – table tennis, carrom – and told that we might get dark, not find a husband. At this time, we heard that the Women’s Cricket Association was formed and they were looking for state bodies to affiliate to. That’s when the Tamil Nadu Women’s Cricket Association was formed. We roped in players - for example, we had Lawrence Joseph Edmonds and Sushil Haridas come on board coaches for us. They were Ranji and South Zone players. The idea was for a group of likeminded people to come together and help women’s cricket grow. This body would conduct meetings, go around to collect funds. Back then, it was a circle of friends and family coming together to help women take to the game,” she says.
FRUITS OF LABOUR
There is a certain romanticism associated to the struggles of being a woman in cricket those days that echoes in Malvika’s and Sudha’s recollections – like when the girls, while waiting for a connecting train to Varanasi at the Mughalsarai station played a game of catch at the platform, how travel in unreserved compartments would be accompanied by song and games and how 16 girls would share one dorm room and have fun ahead of a tournament.
The association, with its fundraising and logistical support, made these trips possible and sought to be a medium to popularise the game for women in the state.
Due to her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Esmie’s memory struggled towards the end, but Malvika points out that cricket never really left her mother.
“Sometimes, we used to ask mum if she wanted music or we should turn on the cricket. She loved music, but when asked, she would pick cricket,” she says.
““She was very proud of how far women’s cricket has come, especially when Tamil Nadu players broke into the national scene. If she was in the right space, she would have been very happy with what we saw in the Women’s Premier League,” Arjan adds.
After her demise, many friends, former cricketers and bonds made in the cricketing ecosystem checked in with Esmie’s children, with tributes and words of condolence.
“Mum travelled with dad wherever he went. Back then, the Gopalan Trophy, between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka was an important fixture in the calendar. Some of the players from the teams who played then called in after her passing. She was a very lively person and it’s nice to hear of that from people she knew,” Arjan chimes in.
However, officially, there aren’t too many records, written or photographic, of these characters on whose shoulders women’s cricket in Tamil Nadu rested and rose over the years.
“When players say they didn’t know women’s cricket existed back in our time, it’s quite sad because of everything we were trying to do for the game back then,” Sudha says.
“In March, it’s been 50 years since the Women’s Cricket Association of India was formed. Like in TN, all over India, we have characters who have worked selflessly to keep women’s cricket moving forward and these are stories lost to time. It should be chronicled,” she adds.
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