In spite of constant brilliance, women's cricket continues to lack followers    Getty Images

In spite of constant brilliance, women’s cricket continues to lack followers Getty Images

The sudden spurt of popularity notwithstanding, interest in the women s game will probably remain ephemeral. At least that is what is suggested by the long track record of women s cricket. Arunabha Sengupta tries to find out why this is the case, by speaking to a couple of English sportswomen who have busted the most heavily barricaded male bastions.

As Harmanpreet Kaur rained sixes and the Indian eves vanquished the Aussie sheilas in the semi-finals at Derby, we had the characteristic waves of enthusiasm in the media traditional and social. As usual there were rapidly mushrooming supporters, springing up from all corners, cheering the incredible innings and the riveting contest, swearing allegiance to this largely neglected domain of women s cricket.

Harmanpreet s score of 171, with its proximity to Kapil Dev s epochal 175, also led a few to venture the question, Will it have a similar bearing on women s cricket as that immortal knock had on the destiny of the men s game in India?

Unfortunately, the parallel, justified in every manner as far as the cricketing content is concerned, will probably remain ephemeral as far as the far-reaching effects go. The immediacy and enormity of the spectacular knock does tend to make imaginations soar, but the sad truth is that women s cricket still has few takers, few genuine followers, very little money and only manages to challenge the male bastion through labours of love and relentless dedication of a special few wonderful ladies.

If the above reads pessimistic, let me remind the readers that this is not the first time that the Indian eves have reached the finals in a World Cup. They did so in 2005, and lost to Australia in the title round, precisely the outcome of the men s final two years before that. And one has to take one look at the current state of the women s game, its following and pay, especially compared to the men, to realise that it will take much more than a few striking performances to change the situation.

And that is not limited to India. Let us take a look at the other finalist.

The ladies of England have triumphed in the World Cup on three occasions, 1973, 1993 and 2009. Their men counterparts have not managed to win any traditional global One-Day competition till this day.

Yet, Katherine Brunt, the fastest bowler in the women s game, has to hurl down her fare at Harrogate, while the Joe Roots and Garry Ballances from her county get to tread on the historic Headingley. What is more, the Yorkshire cricket website does not even bother listing the results of the concluded matches of the Women s tournaments at least that is the case at the time of writing.

Similarly, Fran Wilson, the classy batter from Middlesex who scored 81 against India in the group match, has to play in the obscure Mill Hill School Ground. Her county mates, the Nick Comptons and Toby Roland-Joneses, get to ply their trade on the holy turf of Lord s, the Mecca of Cricket.

The distinction does not end there. The admission cost for a day s county cricket at Lord s is 18. Similar ticket prices are charged everywhere for the men s games. The women put on their shows for free. Yes, free there is no entry fee for the women s matches. And yet, there is hardly ever more than a handful of spectators.

So, much of the frenzy in social media, after the nail-biting semi-final between England and South Africa at Bristol and the adrenaline pumping win for India at Derby, is destined to flatter to deceive. Women s cricket, much like many other women s sports, remains a neglected by-product of the men s game.

Following and pay come much later. Women embarking on sports have to climb hostile mountains from the very start. Even today, simple perusal of sports dominated by men is prone to raise eyebrows and draw discouraging comments.

But the women keep at it. And many achieve spectacular results.

It is perhaps a good time to canvas the views of some ladies who have broken through another sport that is considered deep inside the male bastion.

Busting the male bastion

Dee Chlebowska is from Nottingham. She is a competitive bodybuilder. Even as she raises the cup of coffee to her lips, the biceps bulge and pop out of her tee-shirt. One cannot break the male bastion in a more telling manner.

Bodybuilding is a sport of dedication, where one has to put everything into it, she says. And I have generally had positive reactions to what I do. There is a greater following in the men s circuit, but the women are also encouraged.

Yes, it does shock people from time to time: Normal people are sometimes shocked by a girl bodybuilder, someone who can lift more than men. But, they respect what I have achieved and respect who I am. Maybe my sister hates me for what I am doing, but that is family.

Dee Chlebowska     gunning through a male domain. Photo courtesy: Arunabha Sengupta
Dee Chlebowska gunning through a male domain. Photo courtesy: Arunabha Sengupta

Dee thinks some of the greater amounts of encouragement she has received may have to do with aesthetics brought about by the women in the sport. However, a more important aspect, according to her, is that bodybuilding is an individual sport while cricket and football are team games: Tennis, athletics, these are individual sports and there is following for the women as well. Bodybuilding is not that popular, but it follows the same pattern. When it comes to team sports, cricket, soccer or the rest, there is a culture of it being essentially a male thing. There are groups of men sitting together, cheering a men s team in a male sport. Perhaps that is why we have problems in women getting the same sort of recognition in cricket. I did not even know that there was the Women s World Cup going on. It is in the culture, men cheering for the men s teams. For most that is all there is to sports. It is changing, but it will take time.

Dee does have a strong message for the aspiring women athletes.

I do have a strong message. We are not supposed to be weak. If we are afraid of achieving something we will never achieve that. We won t achieve anything by being in our houses behind men. We have to come out and do whatever we want to do. It all comes from determination, and willpower that determines how strong you are and how strong you can be.

So, girls: stop hiding, come out, show them that you can do it. You can lift, you can play. You cannot be dictated by someone saying something, someone watching, someone not being happy. I have met so many girls in my life who are amazing athletes, which is all about pushing yourself.

Kim Chambati-Woodhead is smaller in dimensions, and she is not that long into the circuit. However, she too has muscles to make the eye pop. This young lady from London is a body-fitness competitor, a category in which one is muscular but still quite feminine.

Kim Chambati Woodhead: Pretty and power-packed. Photo courtesy: Arunabha Sengupta
Kim Chambati Woodhead: Pretty and power-packed. Photo courtesy: Arunabha Sengupta

She went the bodybuilding way because she wanted to go ahead and become a personal trainer. It is a common trend for personal trainers to traverse the bodybuilding path in order to complete their resumes and attract clients. She decided to give it a try as well. When she started dabbling in it seriously, Kim realised that she wanted to do it for herself. As someone who had been training in the gym for a while and had tried several sports, she decided to take it to the next level.

The reactions to her sporting pursuits have not been uniformly positive as in the case of Dee: People who generally train at the gym, the coaches, the like-minded people who have made the same sort of sacrifices, they can be supportive. At the opposite end of the spectrum, people who don t train in the gym that much can see it as somewhat manly. Even a man who trained regularly in the gym told me, You compete? Yes, I thought you looked manly. That took me by surprise. But, there are also people who do not train who seem inspired by what I do.

Pay, prize money and other financial matters remain skewed in favour of men. Much as is the case in cricket. Kim says, For something like Olympia, the men who win get hundreds of thousands in US dollars while the women get in the range of tens of thousands. So, there is a significant difference. You see that across sports. It is reflected by what I saw on the way here. I was waiting on the platform and I saw an advert for Sky Sports, and lo and behold, it had different sportsmen from different sports advertising the channel, five of them, from tennis, golf and so on, and all were men. So the system is supported by the marketing, advertising and so on, sometimes even without our realising it. It is so dominated by men.

However, she is optimistic about the situation changing with time: There are definitely changes taking place and that will continue to happen. More and more women are getting into sports which were always male-dominated. Women are feeling more empowered, more encouraged. More women you have in these sports, you have more people to support this movement. Tennis is a prime example. In the Grand Slams the women are paid exactly the same as men, and Billie Jean King had pushed for it before the changes took place very recently. That is an example that shows things are definitely changing.

Kim also agrees that there is a difference between team and individual sports: At the end of the day, sporting events are a business, they are there to make money as well as provide entertainment and a male dominated following will of course dictate which sports are given priority and therefore which are televised. In turn this dictates which venues are used etc. It goes without saying that men predominantly follow men’s sports/ teams but I don’t know if I could confidently say the same stands for women supporting women’s sports…

Like Dee, Kim too has a message for the aspiring sportswomen: You get a lot of mixed opinions about being a woman in sports. But you have to have the right reasons for doing your sports, for yourself, for your personal development, and it is then that your true passion is going to come through and you can make a difference in the sport. In terms of ability and skill there is no reason why women and men cannot be on the same level.

Both these ladies, who have busted the most barricaded of male bastions, do feel that things are changing. But for women in team sports like cricket to get to the same level of popularity as their men counterparts, it is still going to take a while and a lot of change in concepts and mindsets.

Yet, we do sincerely hope that ladies will keep pushing the boundaries.