So you thought the recent row between veteran cricketer Mithali Raj and coach Ramesh Powar was the meanest bouncer, or yorker if you like, to rock Indian women cricket? Well, not quite. In 1995, on India’s tour of New Zealand, then India captain Purnima Rau was slapped by chief coach Sreerupa Bose! Why? Just because, claims Purnima, she wanted to stay in a shared room, not the single room she was allotted as the captain of the team. In another shocking incident, a player was named captain of the side, only to be dropped from the playing XI soon after.
These issues, however, didn’t snowball into major controversies. Maybe women cricketers back then were too meek to speak up publicly and lodge a protest, like Mithali did. If that’s what you are thinking, you are again off the mark. The pioneers of Indian women cricket, in the early 1970s, were as free-spirited as they come. Much before Indian all-rounder Mohinder Amarnath famously dubbed the selectors as a “bunch of jokers”, Shantha Rangaswamy, one of the pioneers of women’s cricket, had emerged from the dressing room with a placard reading ‘Down with Murugesh’, a selector, protesting parochialism in selections. And no, it wasn’t an isolated instance of defiance; the women cricketers, in general, abhorred taking things they didn’t like lying down. For instance, they rebelled against their own association, the Women Cricket Association of India (WCAI), demanding better facilities and regular matches; raised funds and went on a ‘rebel tour’ of Europe, the US and the West Indies in 1979 when the association struggled to give them international exposure; stood their ground and launched a stinging counterattack when they were accused of delaying tactics on the tour of England by their opponents and the English media in 1986. The situation got as bad as during the infamous ‘Monkeygate’ in Australia in 2008. While the men’s team had the all-powerful BCCI backing them during the ‘Monkeygate’, the women’s team fought the battle on their own, and forced an apology out of the England Women’s Cricket Association. “The BBC was covering the match and we made a very strong statement saying it’s high time the British remember that they don’t rule us anymore,” remembers the feisty Diana Edulji, the driving force behind women’s cricket since the beginning.
It’s absolutely stunning to find women cricketers so feisty and confident five decades back, when taking up serious sports for women would have been so tough. As this wonderful book, authored by Karunya Keshav and Sidhanta Patnaik, tells us, society didn’t approve of women’s cricket and cricketers, but these women braved the discouraging attitude and lack of facilities to follow their passion. “We never thought about what we would gain or achieve... We loved the game, we were mentally free... we just played,” said Lopamudra Bhattacharji, a former medium-pacer.
For a book tracing the history of women cricket, The Fire Burns Blue could have easily slipped into the trap of compiling match reports and stats. Thankfully, it doesn’t. Along with the journey on the field, the authors focus on personalities, anecdotes, stories behind the scene, and bringing in varied perspectives. For instance, quite a few may know that Shantha was India’s first skipper, she hit the first international ton for India, but not many would know how she was as a batswoman. “Like a Dhoni, no style to talk of but very effective, she could smash the ball really hard, tonked sixes,” the book offers.
From tracking the bright start women’s cricket had in the country — a crowd anywhere between 20, 000 and 25,000 was commonplace for a women’s match in the 1970s — to being pushed to the margins by men’s cricket following the 1983 World Cup triumph and administrative mediocrity, the book also touches upon issues such as career vs marriage, gender bias, et al. And all this makes this book a delight to read.