Thursday, 5 June 2014

That '90s show: What the Indian women's cricket team can take from the men.

The '90s were a time when the Indian team's batting was often single-handedly carried by this man.  Its not unlike what Mithali Raj does for the women's team today.
As Virendra Sehwag stole the show with a pleasantly unexpected hundred a few nights ago in the IPL semi final, commentators were awash with praise for him. Harsha Bhogle could not stop saying how Sehwag was peeling back the years and turning back the clock. Those phrases got me thinking, not about Sehwag's wonder years in particular, but about a period a decade earlier, the '90s of Indian cricket.

If you, like me, were born around the time of India's first World Cup victory back in 1983, you only heard about it as legend. A fairy tale almost, one whose protagonists have almost all faded into the obscurity of lore (or retirement, as its sometimes known). Much like a child asking his father after a bed time story,"Daddy, what does prince charming do nowadays?", such were the lenses through which we looked upon that seminal upset victory at Lord's, wondering where those heroes are now.

By the time we started recording our earliest memories, the '90s were around, and new heroes had appeared. Flesh and blood ones. Azhar was making Hyderabad famous for its wrists, Sachin was many-a-times the only one scoring runs, Srinath was showing that he could swing it both ways, and Kumble was redefining the speeds at which a spin bowler bowled.  Along with an overseas test win, the fairy tale of 1983 was the ideal that these flesh and blood heroes aspired to.

And while I was thinking about that page in our story book when our team was famously talented and infamously inconsistent, I couldn't help feel that in many ways, our women's team of today is stuck on the same page. Most opponents admit that we (that is the women's team) have talented players, often more talent than they do, but don't have a winning team. Like the men were, we are often over dependent on one player to score the runs. We're sometimes labelled as poor chasers, like the men often were. Strong throws, athletic fielding and urgent running between wickets are more of an  exception rather than the rule, just like our creaky-kneed '90s male counterparts. And the pace bowling attack has been a one woman show for a while now. Drawing this comparison is difficult process, because it is, first and foremost, an admission of my own hand in the current state of affairs, or the lack of it.

But I am not trying to paint a bleak picture here. Lets not forget how much Indian cricket changed post the '90s. After passing through the baptism by fire of match fixing, Indian cricket slowly started building towards its peak in 2011. With the BCCI's financial backing,  professional support staff appeared, and a paradigm shift in culture was noticeable. A change in leadership, both on the field and off it, wrought a new mindset among players and fans alike. Suddenly, in the Wright-Ganguly era, we all believed. A brood of fitter, faster youngsters snapping at the senior's heels meant Indian cricket was only going one way : Up. By the time Kirsten-Dhoni took over, we were world class. 

After a string of poor performances at the international level, both home and away, hopefully Indian women's cricket's graph will follow a similar curve. The doldrums of the '90s must give way to the genesis of a new fate. The ingredients are all there. Younger, fitter players have been proving their international credentials over the past couple of years, and some prodigal talent is bubbling under the surface. Only a catalyst is required. Just as the men went from being a one man batting line up to a team with a big three and a big four, the women have the quality to find themselves similarly positioned.

The chessboard is all set for a transformation. Pawns are fast being anointed  knights, bishops, and castles. They are all guarding the lone queen's flanks in her tireless attack. But the proverbial King holds all the keys. He hardly moves on the board, yet all the others move to his tune. Here's hoping that he knows the value of his pieces.