At the Commonwealth Games, Harmanpreet Kaur’s side have the opportunity to step out of the shadow of the men’s team on a stage that cricket does not frequent. A strong performance will fuel growing interest in women’s football at home and deal a blow to gender parity

At the Commonwealth Games, Harmanpreet Kaur’s side have the opportunity to step out of the shadow of the men’s team on a stage that cricket does not frequent. A strong performance will fuel growing interest in women’s football at home and deal a blow to gender parity

Cricket is unique. It’s a team game where individual excellence not only defines its players, but often supersedes the team itself. It aspires to a global footprint without compromising the privileges of its powers. It is a sport that basks in its adherence to tradition and yet has changed the most in form and format. And in India, it is a sport that is identified with many other things: religion, business, entertainment, celebration.

For these and other reasons, cricket has remained largely outside the multidisciplinary events that celebrate sporting excellence – the Olympics, the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games. While the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games featured cricket, with a return scheduled for 2022 – minus India – the game’s first, modest Commonwealth Games appearance was in Malaysia, in 1998.

The sport was then so far from its current avatar that current India captain Harmanpreet Kaur was nine years old, Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble were at the peak of their respective careers and Shafali Verma was still more than five years away from conceiving. . And so, when the Indian players left for Birmingham earlier this week, they were in an enviable position: there was no history to judge, just the opportunity to pioneer a future where the sharing facilities in a Games Village would no longer remain a curiosity for cricketers.

game changer

“It will be a game-changer going forward. This is the first time that we have taken part in an event of this magnitude. It’s a great platform for our girls to be with so many athletes in so many sports and it’s also an opportunity for us to showcase our sport and our talent,” said Harmanpreet.

This is a first opportunity for the women’s team. In 1998, the 50+ version was played, only by men, with the cricketing world divided over the significance of the event. The Board of Control for Cricket in India was initially reluctant and later wanted to send a B team, prioritizing the Sahara Cup against arch-rivals Pakistan in Toronto. Participation was only guaranteed after much cajoling and coercion from the Indian Olympic Association – particularly then-president Suresh Kalmadi, who did not budge from his stance on inclusion of Tendulkar – and of the government.

There were 16 teams, with several Caribbean nations participating independently. The Indian team was split into two – one competing in Kuala Lumpur, the other in Toronto – and the CWG outing ended disappointingly. The unit led by Ajay Jadeja won only one of the three league matches (there was one without result) and failed to reach knockouts, despite the presence of players such as Tendulkar, Kumble and VVS Laxman.

This time around it’s a shorter, more competitive affair, with eight teams playing T20s. “All of us as cricketers have watched the Olympics, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games grow up, seen the national flag waved high and the national anthem played. It’s a chance for us to do it too and it’s a matter of pride,” insisted coach Ramesh Powar.

It’s no picnic, however, for the team.

India are clubbed with Australia, Pakistan and Barbados in Pool A, the team starting as favorites only against Pakistan. “This tournament is very important for us and we will definitely play for a medal. We grew up watching such events and we are happy to have this opportunity as well,” said Harmanpreet.

The tone and tenor are a far cry from the reluctant, Protestant turnout of 24 years ago. In a way, it is also representative of the evolution of the sports scenario, across the world and at home. While cricket has clearly become a behemoth that dwarfs everything else in the country, public interest in other sports, especially at multi-sport events, has multiplied. India’s consistent, albeit tiny, successes also played a role.

Other cricketing powerhouses including Australia and New Zealand have also consistently supported and pushed for inclusion. And with existing markets, with the exception of India, approaching or on the verge of stagnation, the powers that be are constantly on the lookout for new markets. The wave of T20 leagues across the planet is just an indication of the same.

What sets things apart this time around is the opportunity it offers Indian female cricketers to step out of the shadow of their male counterparts, on their own terms, onto a stage that men don’t appreciate. apparently not as much as the rest of the world. Is. And a good performance on this stage would only accelerate the achievement of gender parity, in opportunities and emoluments. It will also fuel the growing interest in women’s cricket at home.

With talk of the women’s IPL being bolstered and the Big Bash League and The Hundred drawing top Indian names – unlike men, Indian women were allowed to play in other franchise leagues – the CWG would not have Couldn’t come to a better time for Indian women. Which also explains the appointment of a full team for the event.

What is also different on this occasion is the location. The 1998 edition was held in Kuala Lumpur, a cricket-free city, on hastily prepared and poorly prepared grounds. Interest came mainly from expatriates who knew the sport and the players. This time around, with games being played at Edgbaston on suitable grounds in a nation that knows its cricket, levels of interest and competition are expected to be much higher.

The change, in some ways, also reflects how perceptions have changed in the sport. Just as India has gone from being a country, in foreign minds, of dusty roads, roaming cows and the infamous Delhi Belly to the first step for any professional cricketer, so has Indian cricket’s reluctance to yield. room for an excited, albeit cautious, curiosity for multidisciplinary events.

Something new

“It’s something new not only for me but for the whole team, we’ve never been part of an event where other sports are also involved. It’s quite new and we don’t really know the games village so we don’t know how much we will be able to go around and interact with other athletes but I would like to have conversations with other athletes about the type of training they do, try to learn about their sport and share their experience,” vice-captain Smriti Mandhana said.

It’s a novelty, that’s for sure. Smriti added that the team was still moving from aiming for a trophy as a winner to aiming for a podium and a medal, imagining the subtle but substantial shift in goals. A big part in this shift in perception was played by one man – Neeraj Chopra, and his Olympic gold medalist.

Although the Olympic champion retired from the CWG with a stump, he remains a favorite. Powar wanted to pick Neeraj and the brains of two-time Olympic medalist PV Sindhu to handle the pressure – “both of them have set the bar high and I would like to get into their minds and their preparations and exchange notes on how they handle the pressure of an entire nation. he said – and Smriti cited Neeraj’s winning moment as the motivation to do well.

“I literally got goosebumps when the national anthem was played and the flag was raised after Neeraj got it in the Olympics. We all watched those events and everyone knows the feeling when the Indian flag goes up and that’s what we’re looking forward to here. We’re clearly aiming for gold, not just a podium,” she revealed.

Celebrate every medal

And Harmanpreet is eager to encourage Indian athletes in other sports, which a standalone cricket tournament will never be able to offer. “Actually, I imagined that. Now, it’s not just about cricket. We want to celebrate every medal we win,” she said.

There is an apocryphal story of hockey legend Dhanraj Pillay who was asked what he had that Sachin Tendulkar didn’t. Pillay presumably replied, “I’m an Olympian, a gold medalist at the Asian Games. He can never be one. The CWG may not be in the same league as the Olympics, but the Indian women’s team now has a shot at securing that elusive medal cricketers have never had.