The Challenge of Change
In 2018, in a first of sorts, a current Indian woman cricketer found herself in a TV studio amidst male stalwarts of the game while a Test match being played by men’s teams was underway. Smriti Mandhana, who had had the loveliest of English summers, had been invited as a guest for the lunchtime show on Day 5 of the second Test between India and England at Lord’s. In her maiden Kia Super League (KSL) appearance, the Indian T20 vice-captain had smashed 421 runs from 9 innings, the most runs by any player in a women’s T20 league, which included a 61-ball 102 in a chase for Western Storm against Lancashire Thunder.
As Smriti shared the studio with host Harsha Bhogle and former cricketers Sourav Ganguly and Graeme Swann, all part of the India–England series broadcast team, her experience of playing in a T20 league run by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), one sensed change at two levels.
The more obvious one was in Smriti the cricketer. Exactly a year earlier, she’d had a disastrous World Cup in the same country. After her superlative knocks of 90 and 106* in the first two games, the elegant left-hander made just 36 runs in the next seven innings – the dip in form was stunning. But together, with Anant Tambvekar, her personal coach, Smriti had worked on a new stance, a slightly more open one, a changed grip and plenty of training on playing lofted shots, something she rarely played a year earlier. The result: she was the highest scorer in the KSL, with a massive strike rate of almost 175, and she also won the Player of the Tournament award.
Smriti had earned the right to that seat in the TV studio among men, to talk cricket during a key Test series, also between men. Her appearance was unprecedented and refreshing to watch and hear, given that pre-, mid- and post-innings shows during cricket telecasts in today’s day and age usually featured guests who were present for either the promotion of a film, an album, a concert, even a product or service; the connection to cricket was just roped in. But here was a woman, the most in-form batsman from the Indian women’s team, who was part of the telecast of a men’s cricket match for the right reason.
It was an indicator of the slowly but surely increasing gender inclusivity in the game and the very evident appetite and continued interest of global audiences in women’s cricket.
On commentary duty for the same series, for Sky Sports, were former England international players Isa Guha and Ebony Rainford-Brent, both part of an impressive line-up featuring the likes of David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd, Nasser Hussain, Mike Atherton, David Gower, Sir Ian Botham, Michael Holding, Ricky Ponting, Kumar Sangakkara and Harbhajan Singh.
Guha, who is impeccable with ball-by-ball commentary, is a veteran behind the microphone now. Whether it’s her snazzy and energetic tone when commentating for a T20 game, or the more business-like and to-the-point observations in an ODI or a Test match – she strikes a beautiful balance between being informative and expressive in her opinions at the same time. She lends a fresh, new-age approach to the broadcast that’s often missing from the bastion of male commentators.
But it’s taken time for those planning and programming cricket telecasts to realize that Guha’s biggest strength lies in her playing credentials – not her looks, her wardrobe or her accent. A fine medium pacer, Guha was roped in as a presenter for the 2012 season of the IPL, only to be reduced to the telecast’s glamour girl. ‘Bowler babe’s killer looks spice up IPL,’ read one headline.1 ‘Not only does she score high on the glamour scale, but also has first-hand knowledge of the game of cricket,’ the opening line said. Surely a two-time World Cup winner could have had a better introduction? But it seemed like ‘her sexy pastel wardrobe, sunny personality, the English accent, and honey-kissed skin’ were identified as the key areas of focus.
The IPL telecast on Sony Max for ten seasons has not been known to be fair in its portrayal of the women within its ecosystem. There are cheerleaders, dancers and DJs in the studio, and ‘reporters’ too, who very rarely asked the cricketers questions about cricket. And when there was a woman cricketer in the house, Guha in this case, she was asked which cricketer she found the hottest, or which cricketer she would love to dance with, her discomfort on being asked so quite evident on screen. The IPL is tailor-made for the male gaze and it’s considered fun when Danny Morrison lifts an on-field presenter in his arms, and cool when Ravi Shastri appreciates the shade of lipstick a fellow presenter is wearing.
Sony’s experiments with women anchors started much before the IPL, though. When it roped in actor and model Mandira Bedi as presenter for its 2003 World Cup programme Extraaa Innings, the idea, the broadcaster said, was to attract female viewership. As the only one on the panel (barring her co- presenter Charu Sharma) who wasn’t a former cricketer, Bedi was supposed to be the voice of the cricket fan. Unfortunately, that attempt to have a seemingly gender-balanced studio panel didn’t have the desired outcome.
After three rounds of auditions, when Bedi, who’d shot to fame with the daily soap Shanti, made it to the World Cup’s flagship show, she felt she was a ‘disaster’. She was in a heap of tears every single day, in the beginning, as people ridiculed her. In a country possessive about its cricket, it’s tough for anyone new to appeal to the audience. It was challenging for Harsha Bhogle too initially because he hadn’t played international cricket, and there were opinions that it was none of his business to be talking about the game. About Bedi, the displeasure was different: she was a woman; therefore, she had absolutely no right to comment on the game.
It’s not that Bedi didn’t understand or follow cricket. She had kept track of scores and match results regularly. But in a space that comprised a battery of former international cricketers, she was lost, by her own admission. Her fellow panellists didn’t make her life easy either. They stared her down as if a bowler would a tail-ender, sometimes even being mean, disconcerting and disrespectful.
Outside the studio, too, viewers and trolls didn’t spare her: ‘Bimbo’, ‘airhead’, the ‘extra in Extraaa Innings’ – they called her all sorts of things, convincing Bedi that she was going to be replaced by someone better.
Also, there were no smartphones back then and preparing for telecast was even more challenging since she didn’t have access to the Internet or any newspapers or magazines, and instead had to rely completely only on printouts from ESPNcricinfo and Wisden for research. In the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, she was getting things wrong every day. Sneha Rajani, business head at the channel, sat her down and said they were not going to get a new anchor. She was supposed to be speaking on behalf of the layman; she was not an ex-cricketer or a cricket expert. It’s live television, Rajani told her, and everyone made mistakes. Yet, when Bedi made one, it made headlines. However, when the men on her panel, some of whom were former cricketers, did the same it was ‘a slip of the tongue’.
Bedi was convinced that she was being watched by a deeply sexist society when she chose to wear sarees with the now- famous ‘noodle strap’ blouses on India match-days at the World Cup. It was her personal choice to wear those and the network seemed to have no issue with it, but it seemed as if everyone else did.
By the end of the World Cup, when Bedi had decided she was going to ignore the trolls and just enjoy herself, she felt much more ‘accepted’ by a lot of fans. It was only when she returned to India and read everything that had been written about her that she realized what a storm she and her wardrobe had caused. Bedi’s life changed as she became the face of several cricket presentations in days that followed, sometimes doing even six interviews a day, while taking her flaws and ‘lack of cricket knowledge’ in her stride.
Over a decade later, more women are now part of cricket telecasts and productions as camerawomen, directors, producers, floor managers. But for those presenting, little has changed. To a certain extent, women presenters were used to glam up a show, but that’s true for men too.
Mayanti Langer, who became the face of cricket presentations on the Star Sports network over the last few years, says she is fortunate to be working in a gender-neutral space, where the male and female anchors have the same responsibilities. When she approached Star for a job, she didn’t mention her gender, nor did her colleague Jatin Sapru. Her network had the same expectations from both of them. But earlier, whenever she felt the slightest sense of commodification in an assignment that she had been approached for, she had said no. Langer is in her profession for the content and the conversations she moderates, but knows all too well that it’s her wardrobe that makes her a talking point on social media more often than she’d like. Along the way she learnt what to absorb and what to not respond to.
Some think it’s a distraction for the cricketers when she is on the field. But she’s not the only one to be judged for her hemline or the height of her heels. All the women she had worked with faced similar situations, on a daily basis. Over the years she developed a thick skin.
Langer’s wardrobe was experimented with extensively when the Star Sports network telecast the IPL for the first time in 2018. There were ethnic outfits, and coats and blazers to go with the skirts and dresses. Perhaps, it may have been an outcome of the one-sided conversation on the Internet about Langer that the network wanted to change.
Playing an equally important role in the same ecosystem as the presenters are journalists, many of whom are women. Just like it is in the game, the ratio of men and women in the press box too is rather off-balance. For a woman journalist on the beat, very often, it’s an act of achieving a fine balance between getting the news before anyone else and, at the same time, watching out for herself and what people around her are talking about when referring to her. This is particularly true for women who work for TV channels, where the aspect of being visible to the world changes the reporting dynamic completely. A well-dressed young woman approaching a male cricketer for an interview is often perceived by the latter as an act of perusal by the former.
The fact that news doesn’t develop at a set time or venue makes the job tougher, often uneasy, for women cricket journalists. There’s the pressure of delivering in a news cycle that is non-stop , in situations which get immensely uncomfortable because of the way women scribes are perceived, not just by the cricketers, but even by male reporters.
Anjali Doshi, former cricket editor at NDTV, has had to meet officials in hotel lobbies or rooms at odd hours – meetings that have been particularly tricky. One wants to be ahead of everybody on the news, but you have to be discreet at these places. If Doshi ever had to walk up to a male official’s room late at night, she would worry that he would misread the situation. It happened once when she was supposed to meet somebody really important to get some documents at 1 a.m. when the ‘Slapgate’ scandal unfurled in the IPL.
As for the rest of the journalists, the male bastion that it is, an act like the above is almost always seen from a sexual point of view. The common male assumption is: what else could a girl be doing in a player’s or an official’s room so late at night? In the fiercely competitive world of Indian cricket reporting, where news exclusives are rare, few miss the opportunity to arrive at this conjecture that if a female journalist happened to have got an important scoop, it must have been because of her gender.
In the twenty-first century, things are, of course, different from what they were in pre-television news times, when the generation of cricketers was also a vastly different one. Though safety was never a concern, nor was comfort, there was a time when surprised looks were exchanged whenever any female journalist walked into a cricket press box. Sharda Ugra, now senior editor at ESPNcricinfo, started out in 1989, writing and covering cricket for Mid-Day, and often ended up interviewing officials and players after the end of day’s play. Fortunately for her, apart from the initial curiosity, most of those she interacted with were helpful and accommodating. Being the only woman in that space back then, Ugra was conscious about her work clothes, though. She was careful about how she presented herself. She did not want to be seen as a fan, but as a professional, so she was always dressed in pants.
But it was a time when her male colleagues, even the cricketers of the time, allowed Ugra to be completely comfortable in an all-male environment. She went to hotel rooms, bachelor pads, dressing rooms but never felt uneasy. Back then, cricketers were also accessible, she says, and that made a huge difference. She could dial them up directly, or meet them face to face and they’d rarely decline a conversation. Back in the day, it was fine and completely possible for a woman journalist to travel in the same train as the cricket team, albeit in the second-class compartment, in the company of fellow male journalists.
The biggest change in cricket broadcast, and a refreshing one at that, has been the decision to include women in the commentary box. Isa Guha now has the likes of Anjum Chopra, Mel Jones and Lisa Sthalekar with her on commentary duty on multiple assignments. In a way, it’s strange that this fell in place for the IPL – a product tailor-made largely for a male audience.
For Chopra, the male commentators have only been welcoming and encouraging. Having women commentators has also made the men more aware of what they’re saying on air, because the number of women in sport overall, in the last decade or so, has increased exponentially. Instead of saying ‘A young boy learning to play cricket should learn from that shot’ they would more likely say ‘A young boy or young girl learning to play cricket…’.
Things have indeed graduated, and today in 2018, Smriti Mandhana is being interviewed in the middle of a Test match about cricket, as opposed to Ellyse Perry and Meg Lanning in 2013, who were asked not to look shy and embarrassed by hosts Michael Slater and Michael Vaughan in the middle of a Boxing Day show, when the only footage shown during the programme was that of the two girls modelling. When complimented on air in a creepy manner about how great she looked in a bikini, by former cricketers more than twice her age, all Perry had to say was that she enjoyed being in her cricket whites much more.
But even today, women in cricket and its accompanying worlds – be it television news, writing or broadcasting – are dodging bullets all the time – just like Perry did on that programme in 2013.
It’s not okay for Chris Gayle to flirt with an on-field reporter who’s doing her job and feel all right about it. It’s not okay for senior cricket editors to sexually harass younger colleagues online with the lure of better writing gigs and big interviews just because the Internet is an anonymous space. It’s not okay for TV cameras to linger only on attractive female spectators during live telecasts. With more women playing cricket now, with the game itself much more visible, and with more women participating – on and off the field in their respective roles – cricket’s treatment of its women must change.
About the book:
The 2017 ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup saw the Indian team make it to the finals, and although it lost the game, the tournament marked an unprecedented high for viewership for women’s cricket in India. The ensuing euphoria that followed, including the announcement of two film-deals with the team’s leading stars, ensured that the only direction where Indian women’s cricket could go from there was up. Free Hit is the untold story of how women’s cricket in India got here, and casts light on the gender-based pay gaps, sponsorship challenges, and the sheer indifference of cricketing officials it faced along the way. Focusing on Mithali Raj, the world’s greatest female batsman, and Jhulan Goswami, the leading wicket taker in women’s cricket, author Suprita Das takes us into the lives of the spirited bunch of women who, across the years, just like their male counterparts, also brought home laurels that are worth celebrating.
About the author:
Suprita Das is a journalist with over fifteen years of experience reporting and writing on sport. She won the RedInk Award for Excellence in Journalism in 2015. Her first book, Shadow Fighter, a biography of boxer Sarita Devi, received rave reviews.