Monday, 22 June 2015

T20 Season review

This article first appeared in my column ''Seamstress'' for Wisden India 

The T20 Women's domestic season proved to be closer and dramatic than  the One Day leg, punctuated by close finishes and the odd upset. The final winners though, were familiar faces, as Railways topped the Elite Division, and One Day runners-up Goa went one better in the T20 format to clinch the Plate Division title.

In the Elite Division, Group 'A' , played in Pune, proved to be the closest in the competition. It featured the teams that finished in the top four in the One Day format, along with minnows Gujarat. Odisha beat Maharashtra, who beat Delhi, who in turn beat Odisha again to open up the group. Railways stuttered in their matches against Gujarat and Delhi, until they were rescued in both games by the batting of Harmanpreet Kaur. She produced explosive yet mature innings of 81*(47) and 55*(33), and bailed her team out of high pressure situations. She also finished the highest scorer in the competition, with 262 runs from six innings. It took the last league match to decide who would proceed to the Super Leagues. It was a thriller, Maharashtra pushing Railways into a super over, and then proceeding to win it, thanks to the heroics of Smriti Mandhana, who along with Patil, scored 20 off the super over. Maharashtra Joined railways in the Super leagues.

In Group 'B', Punjab sprung a surprise by topping the group, winning all their games, mainly on the back of quick runs at the top of the order by Jasia Akhter. Madhya Pradesh were the second team to qualify.

In the Super Leagues, the other teams had a plan ready for Jasia Akhter, and thus tied down Punjab, who lost all their games. Maharashtra failed to repeat their upset performance of the league phase, as their total of 108 was not enough to stretch Railways. However, Smriti Mandhana continued her return to form against Madhya Pradesh, to make a chase of 105 against a good M.P. bowling side look easy. She scored an unbeaten 59 off 62 balls, to ensure Maharashtra finished second, and M.P. third on their home ground in Indore.

In the Plate Division, Karnataka, Goa, Assam, Andhra, Bengal, Assam, and Himachal Pradesh topped their respective groups and made the knock outs.

Goa were keen to avenge their One Day Plate Final loss to Andhra in the quarters, and did so easily with Shikha Pandey scalping two and then anchoring her side home in the chase. They then duly beat Assam to make their second final of the season.

Bengal benefited from contributions from their captain with bat and ball. Jhulan Goswami who finished the season with the lowest economy rate in the tournament (2.64 rpo), also finished as the sixth highest run scorer, with runs and wickets at crucial junctures. After making short work of Himachal in their quarter final, Bengal derailed  Karnataka in the semi final. Karnataka, who were chasing 101, imploded, losing five wickets for six runs, to finish on 88.

The final proved to be a thrilling encounter. Playing at home, the iconic Eden Gardens in Kolkata, Bengal got off to a poor start, losing four wickets in the first six overs. Three top order batsmen succumbed to Santoshi Rane's outswingers, before Paromita Roy and Jhulan Goswami stitched together a partnership. Bengal finally finished with only 79, but bowled tightly to have Goa at 34 for four in 11 overs. Jhulan had again delivered for her team, castling Goa captain Sunanda and the talismanic Shikha Pandey in the 11th over to tilt the balance in Bengal's favour. The pressure of seeing yet another title slip out of their hands almost got to the Goa batsmen, but the experienced Salma Divkar kept her head, and saw Goa over the line off the last ball, finishing with 31* off 30 balls. 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Awards in Women's Cricket

This article first appeared in '' Seamstress ",  my column for Wisden India

With Mithali Raj recently becoming the only the fourth female cricketer to be awarded the distinguished Padma Shri award, I decided to compile a list of all female cricketers who have won major government awards. The exercise took me firmly out of my comfortable world of flowing prose and into the unyielding and inflexible realm of statistics, but it  was an enriching one all the same. This post is dedicated to all those incredibly talented and hard working women who deserve every accolade they can get, and to the many more whose way these awards may not have come.

In chronological order:

Shanta Rangaswamy

Arjuna Award- 1976

Shanta was the archetypal pioneer, at a time when women's cricket in India was in its infancy.  She captained the country in 12 of the 16 tests she played, and 16 of the 19 ODIs. In an era where Tests were the prevalent and sometimes only format, she played an attacking and entertaining brand of cricket. The  Bangalore all rounder could be destructive with the bat, as well as with her big inswingers. In a playing career that spanned 14 years, she accumulated 750 runs and 21 wickets in her 16 matches.  She is now a senior officer in a nationalised bank and currently a BCCI selector as well.

Diana Edulji

Arjuna Award- 1983

Padma Shri - 2002

The first female cricketer to be awarded the Padma Shri as well as the Arjuna, left arm spinner Diana Edulji was another member of the pioneering women's test team. Hailing from Mumbai, she is India's highest wicket taker in tests, and is third on the all-time list, with 63 wickets in 20 matches. Known for her unerring accuracy, she was the cornerstone of India's spin attack in those formative years. She also led the country in four tests and 18 ODIs. Now as Western Railway's Sr. Sports Officer, she has helped increase the employment opportunities for talented women cricketers in the country, and helped shape the sports policy of Western and Indian Railways.

Shubhangi Kulkarni

Arjuna Award- 1985

Leg spinning all rounder Shubhangi Kulkarni scalped 23 wickets in the seminal home test series against the West Indies that the Indian women played in 1976. Thereafter, she regularly contributed with ball and bat, and sits just behind Diana Edulji as India's second highest wicket taker, with 60 wickets in 19 tests. Her greatest legacy though, may be that of an administrator. She was Secretary of the Women's Cricket Association of India in 2005, when India registered their best ever performance in a World Cup, finishing runners up in South Africa. Previously, she had helped ink a sponsorship deal with Sahara, who were sponsoring the BCCI at the time.  She also played an instrumental role in the talks preceding BCCI's takeover of women's cricket in 2006. She currently runs a popular sports shop in her hometown of Pune.

Sandhya Agarwal

Arjuna Award - 1986

With an astonishing test batting average of 50.45 in 13 tests, Sandhya Agarwal was Indian women's cricket's run machine. Opening the batting, her presence at the wicket gave the Indian batting much needed stability. With four test hundreds, two of those on foreign soil, she is just behind England's Janette Brittin (five), who holds the record for highest number of centuries in women's tests. The Indore born cricketer was also a crucial member of a strong Indian Railways team for most of her career. She is now involved with the women's wing of the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association.

Mithali Raj

Arjuna Award - 2003

Padma Shri - 2015

Mithali has been the face of women's cricket in the country for more than a decade. She has been the ever present silver lining  in an era of inconsistency for Indian women's cricket. Some of her famous exploits with the bat - her test double hundred at the age of 19 for instance- have single handedly raised the profile of the women's game in the country. Her heroic double ton won her the Arjuna in 2003 making her the first woman in 16 years to win the award, and her overall contribution has also earned her the Padma Shri, which she said took her by surprise, considering Virat Kohli was also in the fray.  In an era where one dayers and later T20 matches were the popular formats, her numbers are staggering. With 4888 runs, she is second on the all-time ODI leading run scorers list. She has led the team in roughly half of her 153 ODIs. With 1267 runs in 47 matches, she is India's highest T20 run scorer, male or female, ahead of Virat Kohli (972). This coming from a player who said in an interview recently, that it took her many years to actually start enjoying the sport!

Anju Jain

Arjuna Award - 2005

Wicketkeeper-opening bat Anju Jain was honoured with the Arjuna in the year that she helped the Indian team make the finals of the 2005 World Cup in South Africa. She was the mainstay with the gloves and at the top of the order for almost a decade. Her diminutive stature belied the power she could pack in her strokes, and lent her agility behind the stumps. The Delhi player was also a key member of the successful Air India team on the domestic circuit. She currently coaches the Assam Cricket Association women's team.

Anjum Chopra

Arjuna Award - 2006

Padma Shri - 2014

Anjum Chopra, with 2856 ODI runs, is India's second highest run getter, and also 10th on the all-time run scorer list. The stylish Delhi left hander is one of the most recognisable faces in women’s cricket, as she is a regular feature on television commentary for both women's and men's international games. Another Air India stalwart, her fluent batting style and safe hands in the slips were a prominent feature of her playing career. She led the Indian team to their first ever overseas test victory in South Africa in 2002. She also played an instrumental role in the historic away series win against England in 2006. She is now a professional orator, sportscaster and writer.

Jhulan Goswami

Arjuna Award - 2010

Padma Shri - 2012

Jhulan seen addressing the team in England, 2011.

Along with Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami's achievements have made her the poster girl of Indian women's cricket. Her height, aggression and pace have helped her captivate the imaginations of onlookers unlike any other cricketer.  With 167 wickets, she is no. 2 on the all-time ODI wicket takers list.  Since breaking into the Indian team as a precocious teenager, she has spearheaded the Indian attack for almost 15 years now. She bowled India to a famous test series win in Taunton, England in 2006, with one of the most clinical displays of fast bowling seen in the women's game. Her match haul of 10 wickets helped her claim the ICC cricketer of the Year award in 2007, the only Indian ever to do so. The tearaway from the small town of Chakda (in the outskirts of Kolkata) went on to lead the country in 42 internationals, including a third place finish in the 2009 Women's World Cup.

Audience episode 2: At the IPLagain!

This article first appeared in my column "Seamstress" for Wisden India

After a few years at the fringes, I was thrilled to find myself back in the NCA camp this year, which meant a month’s sojourn in Bangalore, one of my favourite places. On our first day, the NCA was off limits to us because of the security measures the IPL demanded. So we went to the hospital for our medical check-ups, which meant lots of waiting, giggling and gossip outside different departments. As we got back to the hotel tired and spent, wanting nothing more than a hot shower and full belly, I noticed a buzz spreading in the corridors outside.

Jhulan di was quickly going room to room, asking who wants to watch the IPL game happening tonight. It was Bangalore vs Chennai (Match # 20), a high pressure game, so almost the entire group was going.

As we joined the crowd that was slowly milling into the stadium, I could not help but wonder at the pull the IPL was creating (not to mention the traffic jams). Not even the Ranji trophy final, which was also held in Bangalore, compelled so many locals to turn up and watch cricket live!

That’s the thing about watching cricket live. It hooks you, comprehensively, especially if you are the type of fish that responds to the willow bait and leather tack. Watching a live cricket match inspired my first ever blog post, and set me on this path of writing. In short, it changed my life. 

For one thing, TV slows everything down! McCullum's sprints across the turf to reel in balls that are destined for the boundary come alive in jaw dropping fashion. As does Raina's exaggerated follow through when he bats. It’s something else. 

It's been 10 years since the T20 format pounced on us, and it has rivalled Indian politics for the number of scams and controversies it has endured. On the other hand, in terms of providing entertainment and spectacle, it has caught up with the Indian Film Industry, and in deed in the IPL's case, married it. Much debate has ensued, particularly in recent years, with the match fixing scandals and the commercialisation of the ICC further pushing home the reality that money is making the cricket world go around, and the cricket has been left behind. But has it?

I admit I had next to no interest in watching the IPL this year. I had had my fill of quality cricket on television with the World Cup. But that was not the only reason. I was disenchanted with the IPL. The outbalanced competition between bat and ball and the multitude of scams tainting it aside, I felt little loyalty to any of the teams playing, barring a sliver of affinity towards the King's XI (more because of the coaching staff than the players). So when I joined the throng to watch this IPL game, only my second ever live IPL game, I was going purely to watch cricket. I was trying to be a purist in my head, not a tourist, and to watch the cricket, not the cricketers. 

And the cricket was not absent. Yes there were cheerleaders (who were a distraction more than anything), and there was music and a brilliant live percussionist (which enhanced  the atmosphere really), but the cricket demanded to be seen, as pain demands to be felt (a team mate mentioned ''The Fault in Our stars yesterday""!). Starc sizzled, Chahal baffled, Raina was bold and the Chinnaswamy proved that it is woefully small as mishits went for six and middles went into the 1st tiers. Even though I missed the best of the match (Nehra's four-fer and Virat's fighting fifty) because we had training the next day, live cricket did not disappoint. It was the spectacle I came to see, and it would have been just as entertaining even if I did not recognise a single player or there was no music to bob my head along to. 

Is it the best way to promote the game? As Kathleen Galligan wrote in her highly insightful and entertaining column, "T20 is a good introduction to a sport that is otherwise long and complicated. If you would train for a marathon by first running short distances, surely you can watch T20 before taking on a Test match''. If you come to an IPL match and like I mentioned before, are the types who like the smell of the willow bait and leather tack, the cricket will hook you. The cricket mind you, not the format, not the music, not the melting pot that is the IPL. 

The IPL has the ability to pull in even those who come for the spectacle, for the music, for the atmosphere. It is designed for the masses of Indian viewers who come to watch the movies for the actors, not the story, for the item songs, not the dialogues. 

But if among this crowd, are a handful of observers, who will fall in love with the sound the ball makes when it hits the middle of the bat, or the whirr it makes when it leaves the bowlers hand, despite all the noise in the stadium, then cricket has won. It is an optimistic, naive and unrealistic notion, but I’m sure, among the crowd, is at least one little boy or girl, who will come back for another match, in another tournament, and another format, and maybe take up the game. And that’s a win for the game.