Now belles move like gazelles

The Australian women with the trophy.-K. PICHUMANI

Women's cricket is looking up globally after its governing bodies have merged with the men's Boards. Nandita Sridhar reports on the four-nation international tournament in Chennai.

The catch perfectly fitted the prototype of Aussie athleticism as Lisa Sthalekar leapt at short mid-wicket for a one-handed blinder, in the final of the ICC quadrangular women's cricket series. The India born Australian all-rounder showcased possibly the most improved aspect of women's cricket — its fielding.

Fielding standards reflect professionalism and effort. Notwithstanding flashes of butter-fingered moments and India's unpardonable run-out misses in their do-or-die clash against Australia, fielding has perked up from its earlier lead-footed days.

The Australians and the New Zealanders were the best sides on the field, with the latter showing remarkable progress as a team. As is the Australian norm, the team bounced back from its earlier reverses and thumped New Zealand in a one-sided final.

The Kiwi eves saw their efforts throughout the tournament collapse in one bizarre batting session. Easily the best team in the Group stages, they failed to ride on their momentum and form. The Australians did almost everything right in the latter part of the tournament, but will have a huge gap to plug in their future tournaments.

Cathryn Fitzpatrick, 39, the linchpin of the Aussie bowling, played her last match. "We will have to find someone to replace her, and someone who will take the responsibility to open the bowling," said Australian captain Karen Rolton.

In what could only be described as a cruel turnaround, India, after leading the points table at one stage, lost to England in the match for the third place. The Englishwomen had earlier lost all their group matches, and managed to avert a disastrous blanking to finish third.

Kirsten Pike of Australia celebrates the fall of Aimee Mason of New Zealand in the final.-K. PICHUMANI

The four international teams on display in Chennai gave a fair indication of the improved standards of women's cricket. With most women's cricket Boards merging with the men's and the BCCI taking over women's cricket in India, players have access to top-class facilities.

"We get to play in international grounds now, and the girls have access to the gym and other training facilities. Earlier, they would train in their own private gyms," said Indian coach Sudha Shah.

The improvements are remarkable, considering the players play more for the love of the game, than for any big monetary benefits. The Indians get Rs. 2500 each per ODI, and are given an allowance to take care of their stay and other expenses. Teams like Australia and New Zealand are not paid any prize money, but have their hotel costs and kits covered by their respective Boards.

"We're here for the love of the game," said `Player-of-the-Tournament' Sthalekar. The 27-year-old swung a prolific bat, and accounted for a few batswomen with her off-breaks. "I got into the side as a bowler, but it's the batting that I enjoy a lot. Cricket is a simple game, and we're here because we enjoy it," she said.

New Zealand captain Haidee Tiffen was optimistic about the future of women's cricket, especially in her country. "Netball is the post popular women's sport in New Zealand, but good performances in an international tournament, like this one, should generate better response from people back home. We are a much improved team now, both in batting and bowling," she said.

"Possibly, having a women's Twenty20 match right before a men's match might give us a chance to play in front of good crowds. There are a few ideas we have, to promote our game, and for starters, the men's team know we exist, and we might even do something in association with the Australian Board," she added.

In India, BCCI taking over women's cricket has benefited the team in a big way. The Indian women's domestic structure is far more professional now. "The inter-zonal tournament that took place in Ahmedabad was conducted very well, and we had access to some very good grounds and facilities," said Sudha. "We had three or four girls sharing a room earlier, and it's a relief that we needn't worry about such things now," she added.

But as a team, India has fielding and fitness concerns bogging down the players. In pressure situations, the team tends to implode on the field. "We have to work on our fielding and fitness, definitely. That's what separates us from the Australians and the New Zealanders. The girls are very positive about their approach to the game. There is a lot of talent, but we need improvements in this department. Our build and eating habits might be different from the Aussies and the Kiwis, but we have to raise the level from where it is now," Sudha said.

Captain Mithali Raj was of the view that handling pressure would be the key to India's success in the future. "We lost out because we couldn't handle pressure, despite doing well in the tournament," she said.

India's biggest positives from this series will have to be openers Jaya Sharma and Karuna Jain, and opening bowler Jhulan Goswami. Jhulan's opening spells in this tournament were accurate and her off-stump line troubled a few openers.

"The girls are getting more aggressive," said Sudha, of the Indian women. And this is the case with all the teams. With the desire to win backed by the aggression and effort, the women are making progress.

But a lot more needs to be done for women's cricket to move further. Fortunately, the structure, especially in Australia and New Zealand (both teams merged with their respective men's Boards much before the Indians) is in the right place. With the right support in place now for Indian women's cricket, it will be up to the players to continue working and improving.

THE SCORES At M. A. Chidambaram Stadium (Final)

New Zealand 177 for nine (H. Tiffen 33, S. Tsukigawa 39, N. Browne 41, K. Pike three for 21) lost to Australia 181 for four in 38.2 overs (M. Bulow 50, S. Nitschke 81, L. Sthalekar 32 not out.)

At IIT-Chemplast (3rd place match)

India 219 in 49.2 overs (M. Raj 55, R. Dhar 74, H. Kala 25, H. Colvin three for 50) lost to England 220 for four in 46.2 overs (S. J. Taylor 52, J. Gunn 39, S. C. Taylor 77 not out, L. S. Greenway 32 not out.)