In a rainy evening, after getting into a cab to reach Lalbhai Contractor Stadium, the driver — in his mid 40s — was surprised to know that a second-tier city like Surat is hosting international matches. After knowing that the entry is free for the T20Is between India women and South Africa, he asked: “Is it live on television?”.
“But our cable network doesn’t provide us with that channel,” he said with disappointment, after being told about the official broadcaster. “Do we need to subscribe to it separately? We have the ones that telecast the men’s World Cup.”
Though there is a difference in the way men and women’s cricket are being televised and advertised, Surat witnessing a packed house - capacity of 10,000 - for the six-match series is a feat in itself. Even during the rain-hit second match, stands were almost full an hour before the expected start.
June 2, 2016, marked the beginning of a new chapter in Indian women’s cricket. It was when BCCI’s women’s committee took the progressive step of allowing its cricketers to take part in overseas T20 leagues. Unlike the men’s domestic leagues, women had only two major options to fall back on: Kia Super League (KSL) in England and Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) in Australia.
BCCI still does not allow men to participate in foreign leagues; fatigue is cited as the reason. But given that women didn’t play as many matches as their male counterparts then — not to mention the women’s IPL was nonexistent then — the move made sense. Goes without saying that it would go on to pay dividends.
As of now, three players — Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana and Veda Krishnamurthy — have had a taste of WBBL. KSL has seen its biggest Indian representation so far: Harmanpreet, Smriti, Deepti Sharma and Jemimah Rodrigues.The first to be signed up for a foreign league, Harmanpreet’s challenge in the 2016-17 WBBL was something that almost every Indian faces on a foreign soil. Being a big foodie, she had preferences. Being deprived of her favourite roti and subzi for nearly two months was tough. Managing “other things” apart from cricket, she says, was her first lesson.
“When we play here, we don’t have to think of anything other than cricket. There, it was about food, commuting, etc. It might look silly, but if you don’t get good food when you are staying outside, it can be distracting,” the India T20I skipper elaborates. “I was quite lucky (during that WBBL), because my sister was staying one-and-a-half hours away from Sydney.
Whenever possible, she used to get me North Indian food. When I’m sad or feeling down (after a match), food always makes me happy. There, the options were limited. Sometimes, we didn’t even know what to have. I was just managing with whatever was available. Before the game, you get sandwiches. I was not used to that.”
While there was comfort food in Sydney, England made life difficult for Harmanpreet. “In Australia, I had options. But there (in UK last year), even travel was a concern. You can’t travel without your car. If you want to catch a bus or train, you have to walk a lot. There was a lot of that. When you get back to the hotel, you again feel hungry. At that time my roommate was (Nicole) Bolton, and she gave me a few cooking tips. That’s how I managed.”After that WBBL, Harmanpreet’s awareness increased so much that she began working with a dietician. Going her by own words, that was the time when she “stopped
being picky”. Three years, later, everybody else in the team would stop being so.
For Jemimah, who made her maiden appearance in KSL this year, it was different. She likes to be around with people more often than not. So travelling alone and picking herself up after bad patches turned out to be hard. She was just 18 years old then, after all.“It’s a growing experience. Getting out of my comfort zone was the biggest thing. In India, I’m around people who I am familiar with. I’m pampered wherever I go. However, we have to plan everything on our own there, even practice sessions. In India, we are given the time and sir (coach WV Raman) says, ‘Do this. Do that’. We focus on only those aspects. But in UK, there is no spoon-feeding.”
Not only did Jemimah struggle to get used to batting a bit down the order — she’s a No 3 — but she also had to cope without any guidance. “I had to be on my own, study my game. Things like, ‘This was the match where I should have done better’. Those things. Nobody comes and tells you (do this and that). Unless it’s very major, you have to analyse on your own.”
But Jemimah’s a quick learner. A few matches into the league, her anxiety was put to bed. She realised that she had to sail the boat alone. Her conversation with Smriti at the half-way stage, she says, worked wonders. “Before our (Yorkshire Diamonds) match with Western Storm, my timing was off. I threw away my wicket every time. Then Smriti came and told me, ‘Jab acha lag raha hai (when you are feeling nice), keep going. It covers up for the times when you don’t score’. This is what Tushar (Arothe, former India women’s coach) sir used to tell us.
“I always had that in my mind. I thought, ‘If I’m middling the ball, I’m not going to give it away.”
The conversation did seem to have an impact. After that match, the right-hander made a string of good scores, including two fifties and a century. The latter came off 54 balls, and is now the fastest ton in the tournament’s history.
In the first few years, the think-tanks of these franchises sought just one attribute from their Indian drafts: scoring fast. Harmanpreet can muscle the ball out of the park. Smriti’s strength lies in timing. Veda, “sees ball, hits ball”. Thus, Deepti’s entry into KSL — this year — was a significant departure from this trend. The spin-bowling all-rounder’s natural strength is batting; she still has India’s highest ODI score to her name. But Western Storm sought the services of her off-breaks more. Featuring in all 11 games in their title-winning run, she broke crucial partnerships, and also chipped in with the bat.
“When you play leagues outside, you play with a free mind. There’s no pressure. When you come back and play for the country, you’ve that mental freedom; you don’t feel the pressure. Main cool ho ke khelti hoon (I’m cool when I’m playing).”She has been cool alright. During the first match in that series in Surat, she sent down three maidens in four overs. No woman had done it before.
With Smriti in her team, Deepti benefited from two things. Firstly, she did not feel “lonely at all”. Secondly, she was able to overcome the language barrier. Unlike Jemimah — brought up in Mumbai, with Convent schooling — Deepti hails from Agra, with relatively less exposure. “Language, I had to manage. But Smriti was there, so she helped me out. I speak a bit of English. Even if there’s something wrong, I (know how to) manage now.”
But the biggest learning for these four from their time Down Under and in the Old Blighty can be summed up in one word: aggression. “The mindset there is to hit from the word go. We opt for a more conservative approach, starting steadily with singles. That was the one thing I observed. Irrespective of the situation, their mindset is the same: attack,” explains Deepti.
This aggression, Jemimah observes, is also proportional to their fitness levels. “We realised how important that is to them. They are very particular about it. We will be like, ‘If one day we don’t go to the gym, chalta hai (it’s okay)’. But they become hyper. That dedication they have for fitness and diet has to be appreciated.”
From being India’s flagbearer in overseas leagues to witnessing the biggest contingent in KSL, Harmanpreet has seen how much of an impact those tournaments can have on the Indian side. “When I came back from Australia, I told my teammates that we can change certain things to get better. But they became all judgmental and said things like, ‘Why are you trying to change us now?’.
"In India, we are a bit complacent. We don’t push ourselves. I used to tell them, 'We can practice, go to the gym and do recovery session in a single day'. That’s because I’ve seen them (foreigners) multi-task. But back then, hardly anyone listened. Now, if two, three people experience the same and make others realise the same, we can improvise many aspects. They will understand.”Harmanpreet is quick to admit that there is still a big gulf between domestic events in India and other powerhouses. But she believes that one thing can change this: more tournaments.“With six teams, they’ve achieved so many things. Considering the resources we have, if we conduct more tournaments like those, think of the possibilities."