Team India has just won the U-19 Women’s World Cup. The Women’s IPL - officially the Women’s Premier League - is about to get underway. And the BCCI has recently introduced equal pay for women players - a well-intentioned reform that is groundbreaking in the world of sport.
It finally feels like Indian women’s cricket is getting its due and its rightful place in the world. Much of the current progress can be attributed to two major factors - the progressive mindset of the current leadership and the giant shoulders of the players and administrators from before. Those that sowed the seeds starting fifty years ago in the early 1970s, up until the 2010s.
This is a first-hand account of some of the highlights and experiences of my own cricket journey through the years, and of another World Cup story (2005) from South Africa.
At the outset, I must say that it has been my life’s greatest honour to have played cricket for India. And it has been an even greater privilege to have been in the women’s game from the beginning in the country, to have captained the Indian team, and to have administered the game in later years.
I made my international debut for India in 1976 and continued to play for the Indian team in Test cricket, ODIs, and two World Cups. I captained India in 1986 until my retirement in 1991. For the last 30+ years, I have been continuously taking up the cause of women’s cricket at the highest levels through various positions at the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI), Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Asian Cricket Council (ACC) and the International Cricket Council (ICC).
As women, when we first began playing cricket in India in 1973 (Mr M K Sharma registered WCAI in that year), the joy of the game and the privilege of playing for the team trumped every hardship and challenge that was thrown at us. The journey, howsoever long and arduous, was the destination, quite literally. Unreserved travel in crowded trains across the length and breadth of the country, staying in no-star dormitories and playing on rough patches and dirt tracks that doubled up as grounds were the hallmarks of women’s cricket in the founding years. Our travel and stay logistics during international tours were also a challenge. But it was our passion for the game that surmounted all odds. The cricket was great, wins were things to write home about, and losses were what made us stronger, both as individuals and as a unit. You could liken the bonds we formed to those of a metaphorical band of brothers - a group of people bound by a common purpose, dedicated and loyal due to the difficult circumstances they faced together.
While my playing career may have ended in 1991, the passion to keep building women’s cricket was very much alive and thriving. I channeled this diehard passion to help build the women’s game in India. In so doing, I was able to work with other equally passionate pioneers and stalwarts of the game. Mentoring younger players, raising funds and sponsorships, organising domestic matches and overseas tours, creating jobs, providing kits and merchandise, coaching, and training, and raising the profile of the women’s game kept us all very busy.
In 2002, I was presented with the opportunity to formalize my contributions. The Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI) held elections for the formation of a new managing committee and I saw this as an opportunity to bring both my cricket and business experience to take the game to the next level. I decided to run for the position of Hon Secretary of WCAI, and was elected to the post from 2003-2006.
I was excited at the prospect of being able to make a positive impact in my new role. I realised right away that my work was cut out for me when I saw the financial state of WCAI in 2003 and learned that the association was in debt. I also realized early that securing funding for the association was going to be a challenging task.
It was 2003, and the 2005 International Women’s Cricket World Cup was two years away. Up until then, the World Cup had been won by either England, Australia or New Zealand and India had never made it past the semi-finals. We set out on our mission. We were going for the win.
Our preparation was going to need a radical approach. It was also going to need money, facilities, and resources. I set out to strategize with some of the best minds in women’s cricket, and also call in favours from individuals, organizations, and corporates, each time ensuring we were putting the right peg in the right hole.
My experience as a player came in handy. I knew our women were some of the world’s most skilled spinners, decent medium pacers, and technically sound batters. But our Achilles heel was fitness - physical, mental, and psychological. In the final analysis, it was always fitness that separated us from great outcomes. This knowledge led us to lay the foundations of a winning team. Fitness was prioritized at each training camp. We appointed coaches who had played and performed consistently at the highest levels and trainers who were the best in their field. Sudha Shah and Dr. Hamsraj delivered on their promise. For the first time, the women were asked to leave their kits behind and undergo fitness tests such as the Beep Test. Based on the test results, players underwent a customized training program to achieve the levels set out for them. The importance of fitness before skill in their selection was conveyed to the players. This shock and awe approach had its desired effect as players got fitter but more importantly prioritised fitness for the first time.
Next, we needed a world-class facility that allowed the team to stay together, train together, and most of all bond together. The need to impart soft skills such as personality development, confidence building, and communication was also not lost on us.
The then Chairperson of Selectors, Shantha Rangaswamy, and I reached out to another team of stellar founders. Mr. Narayan Murthy, and Mr. Mohandas Pai not only opened up the Infosys training facilities at Mysore, but also their personal time and wallets. The Infosys Mysore training campus had an excellent cricket ground, a world-class gym and swimming pool, classrooms, and 5-star residential accommodation. It was the perfect training ground for a team preparing for the World Cup.
One cannot discuss the time between 2003 and 2005 in Indian women’s cricket without mentioning the contributions of another woman, Mandira Bedi, who was the rage as a woman presenter for cricket matches at the time. She helped sign a couple of companies as sponsors and in one case she even advertised for a company and asked them to give the proceeds to the women’s team.
The Indian team that showed up during that time ensured that all of this effort, sacrifice, and contributions, were not in vain. The team won most of the matches leading up to the World Cup. Their body language was confident, and all of the competing countries noticed the positive change in this new-look Indian team.
And when the real test of the 2005 World Cup came, the team played brilliant cricket and blazed a path to the finals - a feat that had never been accomplished before this. And while we didn’t win the final, the Indian women won the hearts of everyone in South Africa and in India. At a time when there was no social media or limited TV coverage, the Indian women received a warm welcome when they returned home, triumphant in their self belief. It was poetic justice for India when Nooshin Khadeer who was a member of the runner’s up Indian team at the 2005 World Cup in South Africa came back to lift the trophy at the U-19 World Cup almost two decades later as the coach of the Indian team.
Back home, there was one more item on my plate. After the 2005 World Cup, the International Women’s Cricket Council (IWCC) and the ICC had merged forming a singular global structure to administer cricket - women’s and men’s. As a result, the WCAI was required to merge with the BCCI failing which we would not be able to compete at the international level. My attempts prior to 2005 to reach out to the BCCI had not borne fruit. But it was 2005 and we had reached the finals of the World Cup and we would not be ignored anymore. I requested the ICC for a one-year extension in order to set the India house in order, and this was granted to us as an exception.
It would take a leader with a vision and a goal for women’s empowerment to enable us to play under the same umbrella. In 2005, I approached then BCCI President, Mr. Sharad Pawar, who not only took keen interest in women’s cricket but also understood the nuances of our game.
He spoke to members of the BCCI, and after some deliberations, the BCCI started to also administer women’s cricket in 2006. We no longer had to worry about, and I no longer had to lose sleep over, how we would fund the Indian women’s participation in the next international tournament. From then on, it has been a steady yet remarkable climb for the women’s game. Parity in facilities and training, access to the National Cricket Academy, world-class travel and accommodation, pensions for former players, have all contributed to the robust ecosystem that has come up for women and girls, around the country.
Every successive leadership team at the BCCI since has added their significant contributions. And now under Roger Binny’s and Jay Shah’s leadership, pay parity and the women’s IPL are the latest to bring the gap ever so closer between the two.
So the next time we see Team India play in a World Cup, it is not just the eleven women on the field but the scores of women and men who have come before them and the vision, efforts, tears, sweat, and toil of so many off the field that we have to be thankful for.
Shubhangi Kulkarni is a former India captain and Arjuna Awardee. She is also the former secretary of the Women’s Cricket Association of India.
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