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WOMEN IN BLUE

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The Indian women’s cricket team is in Australia for the T20 World Cup. And the audience is taking note of their heroics.

Melbourne’s warm weather and the high attendance of crowd to matches in Canberra and Melbourne have been making the Indian women’s cricket team feel so much at home. In fact, Jemimah Rodrigues, touted to be one of the batting mainstays for the team, says “Australia feels so much like Mumbai, my home city.”

Despite losing to Australia in the final of the T20 tri-series on Wednesday, for the women in blue this has been the perfect warm-up for the T20 World Cup beginning on February 20 at the Sydney Showgrounds. And with Australia feeling quite like home, they are raring to go.

First, a bit about Wednesday’s final match against Australia. After winning the toss, Australia put up a formidable total of 155/6 riding on an unbeaten 72 from opener Beth Mooney. Left-arm orthodox spinner Jess Jonassen picked up a brilliant five-wicket haul as Australia defeated India by 11 runs to win the T20 triangular series tournament at the Junction Oval. India and now face Australia in the T20 World Cup opener on February 21.

Arguably, the Indian women’s cricket seems to be the next big thing going by the women’s leagues, Big Bash, the Kia Super League in England, T20 and of course the one day internationals (ODIs). But it was their exceptional display at the 2017 World Cup at Lord’s that audiences took note of their skills as they defied the odds to get to the final which they lost to England.

In fact, it has been reported that since 2017, Indian women’s cricket has evoked great interest with players such as Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur “now being talked about alongside Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma getting the much-needed recognition and sponsorships”.

Agrees right-arm medium pacer and middle order batter, Shikha Pandey. “The 2017 World Cup did the trick for us. After that women’s cricket in India has been on the rise and it couldn’t have been better for us playing at this time because the central contracts have come into the picture. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has been supporting us a lot.” However, she notes, “We keep comparing women’s cricket to men’s cricket. I think we should see both in different light and just enjoy women’s cricket for the sport that it is. Once we start enjoying it, we will realise how good women are in sports.”

Wicket-keeper Taniya Bhatia, who stepped into the world of cricket at the age of seven encouraged by her father, Sanjay Bhatia, who was a back-up keeper for Punjab, tells the Indian Weekly, “Since the 2017 One Day World Cup, all the games are live and people have started coming to specially watch us live, which is great.”

This is indeed great news and speaks a lot about India’s changing attitude where women are availing opportunities earlier reserved for men.

Bhatia started playing with boys at a very young age. For three years, she only practised with boys. It was only when she turned 11 that she got picked up for Punjab team and became the youngest to play under 19 when she was 11. Incidentally, she was also the youngest to play in the senior team at the age of 13.

It is the same story with Rodrigues and Pandey. Rodrigues says she was someone who could not sit quietly at home. So she joined her brothers and picked up the bat at the age of three. At the age of four, she joined an academy where “I could practice with the boys and my dad later started coaching me”.

Pandey, took to cricket at the age of five playing with local neighbourhood boys and started playing professional cricket only at the age of 18. “So it’s been a different journey of mine, very unique and everyone has a story.”

Things are now changing and cricket is driving that change. Bhatia believes women’s cricket has improved a lot and will get better. “Where I used to practice, I was the only girl amongst so many boys. Now, so many girls are taking up this sport and even families are also supporting.”

Apart from the changing mindset, it is also the maturing cricketing infrastructure in India that contributes to the rise of women’s cricket. In the past ten years, cricket as a sport has assumed a more organised, professional tone and become financially viable for players. Cricket academies are also coming up throughout the country thus giving players the opportunity to focus and not worry about alternate careers.

Asked if the team’s forte lies in the ODI formats as opposed to the T20 structure, Pandey acknowledges that both the formats are very different but “we have come to Australia on the back of two very successful series against West Indies and South Africa, which we won convincingly. So, we are going to the T20 World Cup based on that confidence”.

No doubt, the performance of the Indian women’s cricket team on the international arena is gaining momentum. According to ICC rankings, the women’s ODI team is ranked 2nd and the T20 team is at number 4 in the overall T20 rankings. In the words of the Australian women’s team coach Matthew Mott, the women in blue is a force to reckon with in the future.

Mott once told cricket.com.au, “They’re the sleeping giants in women’s cricket. They’ve got a country that’s mad on the game, and in their batting, they’ve already got three or four world-class players.”

So, what are the strategies in place for the T20 World Cup?
“Doing the tri-series before the World Cup has only added to our preparation in terms of trying combinations, batting order, and so on. It has also helped us acclimatise with the conditions here. We have been preparing 12 to 14 months for the World Cup and we have been doing very well… I think we are on the winning side,” says Bhatia.

Clearing the air, Pandey says that the middle batting order is not a problem. “It is just that opportunities are very less for the middle and lower order batters. Our strategy is to play to our strengths and not think too much about what the other team is bringing to the sport. We are thinking about what we are good at and what we can do to the best of our abilities.”

In the same vein, Rodrigues says, “Rather than focussing on Australia, we want to focus on what we can do and our strengths and what we can do to make our team win. We want to focus on that process and play the best cricket that we know… We played certain matches, we know what to do and what combinations work. The fact that we got these matches just before the World Cup is a blessing in disguise as we are getting used to the conditions here. I think preparation is going on well but there are many areas we look to improve and will do so.”

Bhatia appeals, “I want the people back home to keep us in our prayers and cheer us on so that the next time we step out we do our best.”

Pandey hopes to garner some support from the locals. “The culture is entirely different here in Australia, people are more into sports. And they are very welcoming over here.”

Jemimah says, “Wherever we go we have such amazing supporters from India, they come and cheer for us, it’s a special feeling. We get literally pumped up with the cheer and that forces us to do well.”

Here is hoping luck is on the side of the women in blue.

By Indira Laisram

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