Excerpt | Free Hit – The Story of Women’s Cricket in India

Excerpts from the book ‘Free Hit- The Story of Women’s Cricket in India’.

Published21 Nov 2018, 09:14 AM IST
5 min read

1971, Lucknow: Mahendra Kumar Sharma was organising softball and handball tournaments for school and college girls. During a national tournament in Hyderabad in 1973, some of his students were eager to try their hand at cricket after watching boys play the game at the nets. Not only did Sharma see any reason to deny the girls permission to do so, he also started forming in his head the idea of having a cricket association for women in India. But before that, he needed to test the waters.

So he explored the by-lanes of Lucknow, on a rickshaw, microphone in hand, inviting people for what was going to be the first ever match of cricket to be played by women. ‘Kanyaon ki cricket hogi, zaroor aaiye’ he announced on the microphone.

The matches, played at the grounds of the Queen’s Anglo Sanskrit College in the city, were held on weekends only, as the authorities didn’t deem it correct to give permission on weekdays at the boys’ college.

Shubhankar Mukherjee, a student and wicketkeeper-batsman of the college cricket team then, happened to hear the announcement and just showed up at the ground on a Sunday morning. Sharma requested the young man to help him with the scoring. Mukherjee didn’t know the names of any of the players, but ‘Sharma Ji’ had a solution – he made one of the players who wasn’t on any of the teams sit under a tree with the young man and keep scores for that game.

About 200 spectators, college boys mostly, were in attendance to watch women – some of them in white bell-bottomed trousers, the rest in white skirts – play cricket. It would be safe to say that the crowd had turned up to watch women play in skirts.

The teams played on a half-matting wicket. By the end of the first innings, the team batting first had made 70 runs from 40 overs, 22 of those runs were byes. For the curious Mukherjee, it was also an assignment in counting the number of steps the bowlers were taking in their run up. Six or seven on an average – whether it was a pacer or a spinner – he would note. The players were, of course, complete novices, to say the least, but about their interest and keenness in the sport there was not an iota of doubt.

The First Women’s Cricket Senior Nationals

Mahendra Sharma may have been just in his twenties, but his passion for the sport was unmatched and it didn’t take him long to form the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI), have it registered under the Societies Act of Lucknow and conduct the very first senior national women’s championship in Pune in 1973. It featured three teams only – Bombay, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh (UP).

It was more like two and a half teams, actually. As Uttar Pradesh didn’t have enough players to form a playing eleven, the reserves from Bombay and Maharashtra played for UP.

With word-of-mouth publicity, only a handful of spectators showed up at Pune’s Gymkhana Club and Young Cricketers’ Club as Bombay won the inaugural title. Whoever turned up, did so to see exactly what the women wore while playing cricket. Do they play in sarees or skirts or trousers? Do they use a leather ball?

For the players, it didn’t matter. The joy of bat meeting ball, the sense of beating an opponent – something that women in other parts of the world (in Australia, England and New Zealand) had been experiencing for over three decades by then – was thoroughly cherished. Sharma sensed there was potential to harness this interest further and had his job cut out.

Premalakaki Chavan, mother of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, came on board as president of the WCAI, while Chandra Tripathi, daughter-in-law of Uttar Pradesh’s then chief minister Kamlapati Tripathi, was appointed chairwoman.

International Teams Visit India

In his continuing efforts to grow the game, Mahendra Sharma wrote to the English Women’s Cricket Association (EWCA), who in turn forwarded the letter to the International Women’s Cricket Council (IWCC) that granted affiliation to the WCAI. February 1975 brought the first touring side, from Australia, to India – an U-25 team of girls for three three-day matches in Pune, Delhi and Calcutta.

With no Indian ‘team’ in place as such, the WCAI organized friendly matches in Nainital and Chandigarh, followed by an inter-zonal competition, the Rani Jhansi tournament, out of which players were finally picked for a camp at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala.

At NIS, they were coached and mentored by Lala Amarnath, independent India’s first Test captain in men’s cricket, by then a pioneering figure in Indian sport.

Till then, the coaches at NIS, with little or no knowledge of cricketing skills, made girls train the way the rest of the athletes on the campus were being trained.

Lala Amarnath told them he wanted them to become cricketers and not long-distance runners. The former India captain was a hard taskmaster, however, and would prefer it if the girls would not take a water break in the three-hour training session, however humid it was. It would help build their stamina, he believed.

The Indian team had a different captain at every venue for the series against the Aussies – Ujjwala Nikam in Pune, Sudha Shah in Delhi, Sreerupa Bose in Calcutta.

Aged 16-22 and with zero experience of having played an international side, the Indian girls managed to draw all three games, much to their credit and everybody else’s surprise.

Shubhangi Kulkarni, who was part of the squad in that series, would go on to become a pillar of the women’s game in India in the years to come. Daughter of a metallurgist and a housewife from Pune, Kulkarni and her three sisters played hockey for Maharashtra and plenty of table tennis and cricket in school, with no objections from their parents.

The others, however, weren’t as lucky. Most families were conservative and weren’t particularly encouraging about allowing their daughters to play any sport. Shyama Lunkar, who later captained Maharashtra, used to live on the ground floor of a building with her family near Pune. Her norm was to first chuck out her cricket gear and shoes out of the window when nobody was looking, then go through the front door with the excuse of visiting a friend’s place, and then quickly pick up her stuff lying outside the window and run for practice. Eventually, Shyama’s family saw her name in the papers and found out what she was up to.

Kulkarni didn’t feature in the playing eleven for the first match in Pune, but she recollects it being quite an event. The state association bore all expenses. And though it was arduous to be begging for donations, those who did contribute did so generously. They even contacted sports good manufacturers to organise a few kits, and got people to donate fabric to stitch blazers for the players.

As the girls responded in style on the field, they started pulling in crowds too. Of course, plenty of them still showed up to check out if the players were playing in skirts like the Aussie girls. But once they realized that the quality of cricket was quite good, they spread the word and returned to watch the next two days as well. There was ball-by-ball radio commentary of the match too, which was unheard of, even for the Australians, who had been playing cricket a lot longer than the hosts. All in all, it was quite a sensational situation.

Excerpted from ‘Free Hit - The Story of Women’s Cricket in India’ by Suprita Das, with permission from Harper Collins.

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