#ReadWomen: Free Hit by Suprita Das

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.

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