Shafali Verma used to have her hair cut short so she could pass off as a boy on the cricket grounds of Rohtak, Haryana. With every backyard six-hitting contest she won against her brother, she pocketed Rs 15 from an indulgent father. At 17, playing her debut Test match for India in Bristol last week, that early investment paid off. Shafali made 96 and 63 against England, picking up the player of the match award and the record for becoming the first woman to hit three sixes in a Test.
Deepti Sharma had been mistaken for a boy too on the day her life changed. Watching from the sidelines as her brother practised cricket, it was sheer chance that the ball rolled to her. Chance that she threw it back straight at the stumps. Chance that this caught the eye of a senior women’s player who took her under her wing. At 23, in this same Bristol Test, Deepti batted a painstaking 5 hours and 8 minutes across two innings on Test debut, saving the match for India. Afterwards, a smiling Sharmaji ki beti called it a Father’s Day present.
Sneh Rana had lost her place in the Indian side six years ago. She lost strength in her knee after injuries. Worst, she lost her father this year, just before she made a national comeback at 27. But, in these years persevering on the domestic circuit, she gained experience and perspective. On her Test debut in Bristol, she lost neither her cool nor her smile. With four wickets and a plucky 80 not out, she earned her country a famous draw.
A few days later, in another part of England, India men’s skipper Virat Kohli called the Test format “the heartbeat of international cricket”. Now these young women, they are all heart. So why don’t we see them play more Tests?
For the Indian women’s cricket team, Tests are like buses: wait ages to play one, and then two come along. This time their wait was seven years. Last time, it was eight. They play Australia in September, but after that, their future in the format is uncertain.
INCREDIBLE FEAT: Female players don’t get a chance to develop skills. When Shafali Verma made history, she did it in the very first red-ball match she ever played
They aren’t the only ones. Women’s Test cricket has fizzled out since the mid-2000s. England and Australia have a one-off game scheduled every two years as part of the multi-format Ashes, and India have played three in the past 15 years, but that’s it. Kane Williamson may have lifted the Test mace for New Zealand this week, but fellow Kiwi Suzie Bates, a cricket legend and Olympian, may finish her career, already at 15 years, without ever having played a Test.
The reason given by the powers that be is that women’s Tests aren’t commercially viable. In fact, all Tests, men’s included, other than those played by India, England and Australia men, bleed money. Twenty-over cricket is seen as the ideal vehicle to spread the women’s game to new countries. And this is true: T20’s inclusion in the Commonwealth Games next year is exciting, and a potential Olympics appearance in the future will be monumental in expanding the sport.
But for now, it’s jarring that even as the Indian women played a rare Test in Bristol, the Indian men were in Southampton for the culmination of the World Test Championship (WTC), which was marketed as “the ultimate test”. Test cricket, more than ever, is seen as the pinnacle for a cricketer, the Test cap and whites an honour afforded to the best. But only for men, not women.
Female cricketers continue to be denied equal access and opportunity to attain the same level of sporting excellence. This discrimination extends to opportunities to develop skills. There is no multi-day domestic cricket for women in any country. No equivalent of the Ranji Trophy. Not only does that affect women’s earnings, but also their skill. When Shafali made history, she did it in the very first red-ball match she ever played!
The women themselves want more Tests, and they want to become better players. “Test cricket, with its switch-off and switch-on mode is totally different,” Jhulan Goswami, who has the most ODI wickets for any woman, once said, her voice animated. “Particularly after lunch, or the end of the day when you are bowling…You need a lot of mental strength.”
Given its rarity, the women don’t just play for themselves, but for the future of the sport. They play not just to win, but also to be entertaining and show doubters that they are capable. If they fail — as all athletes do — they know it could set back their sport. This is an enormous and unfair burden.
Because it’s not up to the women, but the administrators to find non-discriminatory solutions that balance equality and the romance of sport with commerce. If Test cricket is the heartbeat, we can’t let it flatline for the women.
Keshav has co-authored The Fire Burns Blue: A History of Women’s Cricket in India
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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