Batting for the women

As India take on the West Indies this afternoon in Mumbai in the inaugural match of the Women's World Cup, perspective on the women's game may be gained by adopting two bookends. One, women first played a one-day world cup in 1973, two years before men's cricket adopted the format. Two, a debate on women's place in cricket was ignited in England this month when it was reported that the England wicket-keeper, Sarah Taylor, was in talks with Sussex to play men's second XI county cricket. Together, they could help us understand the backdrop against which the women's ODI champions will be decided in coming days and highlight the still uncertain trajectory of women's team sport, especially cricket.

The history of sport can be read in many ways, but perhaps there is no neater way to run a thread linearly through the decades than by tracking the inclusion of women in deciding a discipline's highest honours. It is a work still in progress, and you only have to look at the Summer Olympics to see how.

No women participated in the inaugural modern Games on 1896. They were allowed on the track for the first time at Amsterdam, in 1928 ó but when some competitors collapsed in the 800m event, the International Association of Athletics Federation barred them from competition in races longer than 200m, and this ban held for 32 years. Even thereafter, it took an inordinately long time for women to access the possibilities open to male athletes: they ran the marathon at the Olympics in 1984, the 10,000m in 1988, the 5,000m in 1996. In other sports, women got to compete for a medal in weightlifting only in 2000, in wrestling in 2004, and in boxing finally in 2012, the last bringing Mary Kom something like her due, given that it allowed her a place on sport's greatest stage so late in her career.

Of course, when women have wrested what may be termed equality of status in their sport, the reception has often been grudging. A ridiculous iteration of women tennis players' underserved right to equal attention was finally put to rest by the "battle of the sexes" match in 1973 when Billy Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in straight sets, asserting more than anything else the ridiculousness of the taunt. The point distilled from the episode, as too from the great performances of male and female athletes over the decades, is that it is by appreciating the women's competition on its own ambitious terms that sport as a whole is enriched.

Indeed, taking that a step further, it is time we held cricket to the contention that a sport clears the benchmark of progressiveness, or modernisation, by the measure of gender equality it adopts in terms of the opportunities it offers. Certainly, the past six to seven years have seen progress, with the ICC mandated merger of women's and men's associations giving women access to the facilities (training, stadiums, accommodation) and back-up (umpires, broadcast of ICC tournaments) male cricketers enjoy. It's a big step. You only needed to have visited the Indian women at a training camp on the eve of the merger of Women's Cricket Association of India with the BCCI to see how dependent they were on the largeheartedness of public organisations to get themselves match-fit.

However, you also just have to consider the claim this month by the Mumbai Cricket Association to Wankhede stadium for a men's Ranji match, thereby depriving the women's world cup of the venue. The women's tournament was to be in stadiums across Mumbai alone (till the Shiv Sena threat compelled the organisers to reschedule Pakistan's matches to Cuttack), and the MCA's bid to deny the women a venue associated with the men's 2011 world cup triumph shows the reluctance to even acknowledge, howsoever symbolically, the need to raise the profile of the women's game.

Cricket, more than most other sports, is continuously shaped by its commerce. So, women will obviously not derive the financial returns that men do till they find large viewerships. But equally, cricket's administrators must examine the entitlements that should be the national team's, men's and women's.

This is why the confusion over how to absorb Taylor's news. Could it be that, as of now ó even in England where cricket administrators have worked hard to make the women's game more viable ó women cricketers' achievements are in danger of being calibrated in the narrow context of how they measure up to men? It would be an individual milestone, no doubt, but it is questionable how far it would take the women's game.

Or as Harsha Bhogle puts it while seeking a more enlightened way of watching cricket, when you appreciate Victoria Azarenka's tennis, you do not do so by measuring her serve against Rafael Nadal's. It's a good caution to keep in mind in the fortnight ahead.

The writer is contributing editor for 'The Indian Express', express@expressindia.com

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