The cricket stadium in Hyderabad is brimming over with fans; the tickets for the India-New Zealand one-day international, ranging between Rs 150 and Rs 2000 ($US1=46), are oversubscribed, and many cricket lovers have to leave the gates disappointed.
Fast-forward to less than a month later - December 13, 2003. It's India versus New Zealand again, playing another one-day international. Only this time, entry is free, yet the stadium is less than half full. The
difference? Second time around, the players are women. No matter that they are ranked among the best in the world. Or that the Indian women's team has had a consistent record of international wins over the past couple of years.
"The technique is just as good, though the game may be slower, but the girls have just not been able to attract crowds," says Jyothi Joshi, who has been treasurer of the Indian Women's Cricket Association for the past 10 years. This is the case with most women's sports other than perhaps tennis, which in the past two decades has steadily gained in popularity and successful players have acquired a star quality similar to their male counterparts.
In India, the contrast between men's and women's cricket is particularly stark because of the national mania for the men's game, versus the indifference towards the women's. Dorai Raj, father of world record holder for the highest score in test cricket, Mithali Raj, points to a small newspaper item buried on the lower half of the page that announces Mithali's top ranking in international cricket. "You have to search for it," he says ruefully.
Compared to the public attention given to Sania Mirza, who won the junior women's doubles championship in 2003, Mithali Raj received little media attention after her record test double century (still unbeaten) against England in 2002. "But even the attention I did get was unexpected, so I was not really disappointed," says the player.
Women's cricket in India began in 1973, and has a somewhat chequered history, despite having produced some of the best players in the world. India is one of only 13 nations that have women's teams playing one-day international cricket, and one of only seven where women play test matches. Today, the Indian team is ranked number three, after Australia and England. Despite the impressive statistics, there is little support for the game either from government or the public and the media.
Each year, scores of little girls join cricket clubs around the country. "They're really keen to play," says Raj, who coaches a girls' team in Hyderabad. "And though they have a good time playing, it's difficult for them to really improve their game or to find out where they stand in terms of performance." Resources are limited, with barely subsistence level funding from governments. "Cricket is neither an Olympic sport nor part of the Commonwealth Games," explains Jyothi Joshi. "So we do not receive the kinds of grants that other games do."
The Andhra Pradesh state government, for instance, pays the women's league just Rs 5000 per year to cover the expenses of the annual league matches. "We have to take care of our own travel, and make do with the barest of facilities," says Raj.
The private sector, too, is unwilling to support a game that does not attract crowds. "The few companies that do sponsor women's cricket do it as a gesture of goodwill - it's almost like charity," says Joshi. "After all, what do they get out of it?" In this mass mediated age, media hype begets public attention, which then
delivers the sponsors to the game. Joshi, like Raj, feels the media could do more to encourage the young players. "Most of them are not even aware of what's going on in women's cricket, even at the international level," says Raj. "The links between the women's cricket clubs and the media are very weak."
Surprisingly, matches draw good crowds in smaller towns and cities, according to Joshi. "We find it easier to get sponsors for matches in the districts, and there is a better audience to cheer the girls along." This is one reason why more and more state-level selections are held in smaller towns rather than in state capitals.
"But to really make a mark in the game," continues Joshi, "we need to have better specialist coaches and access to better grounds, at the very least." Better coaching facilities cost money, something that is in short supply. "The situation is better in other test-playing countries, like Australia and New Zealand, where the men's cricket board has been merged with the women's and they have to share revenues," says Joshi. The Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) is among the richest cricket boards in the world, but they have "resisted" the recommended merger with the women's board, according to both Joshi and Raj, although they have agreed "in principle" to share technical support.
"We don't really want them to share the money," says Joshi. "We'd be satisfied with good technical support - if our girls could have access to good coaches, allowed to play on decent grounds, and perhaps offered physiotherapy services." Players on the national men's side have personal physiotherapists paid for by BCCI. Even players like Mithali, who have made a mark at the international level, receive less monetarily and materially than do men who play even at the state or Ranji Trophy level.
But the women's game suffers from more than just lack of funds and facilities: The general lack of enthusiasm on the part of the senior players, who, says Raj, "could be out there motivating the younger players and playing a more active role in developing the game".
Despite all these problems, the women's team continues to have a busy schedule. With the New Zealand series just over, they look forward to playing the West Indies across four North Indian locations. "We need to restrict travel expenses so we have limited the series to four north Indian venues," says Joshi. "A men's ODI series, on the other hand, would span cities from Guwahati to Rameshwaram," she quips.
After the women from the Windies leave, it's time for a quadrangular tourney in England, and then, a year to go for the next World Cup. The women are certainly not in it for the money or the fame - there's precious little of that to go around. It's plain and simple love of the game. As Mithali says, "We play cricket because we love to play."