AUSTRALIA WOMEN TOUR OF INDIA, 2018
As cricket returned home for the first time in eight months since Lord’s, India had braced themselves to give its female stars a befitting reception. © Cricbuzz
Step out of the quaint little Baroda airport and you’re greeted by a very iconic image from India’s recent World Cup campaign. A delighted Smriti Mandhana – the relief written all over her face – embracing her partner as she celebrates her maiden World Cup hundred. Incidentally, that match wasn’t one of the select handful that made their way to the television but an online stream was enough to inspire young girls, all of five or so, to get their India jerseys with a different inscription on them this time. It was also enough for the event-management company that Baroda Cricket Association has hired for the series’ promotion to pull out the footage, make life-size posters of it and plaster them across the city’s length and breadth. It’s captioned ‘Divas make the difference’.
You move a little further into the city and there is a reminder of what Harmanpreet Kaur did to the Australians that day in Derbyshire. Also hard to miss are hoardings of intense-looking Mithali Raj and Meg Lanning, the two captains, with their backs to each other, inviting the city for what promises to be a week-long fest of mouth-watering ODI contests.
Throwback to 2016 in Ranchi – a city that has adopted cricket wholeheartedly for just one man – not one percent of this was on show during home series against Sri Lanka just after the Raj-led Indian side had returned after winning their maiden bilateral T20I series in Australia. That prompted a disappointed captain to remark, “posters toh laga hi sakte the (they could have put up some posters at least)”.
The times have finally changed, and how!
Between then and now, of course, was a World Cup story like no other. Somewhere around that life-altering experience of these women at Lord’s, the idea of women’s cricket as a marketable product was conceived back in India. Now, as cricket returned home for the first time in eight months since Lord’s, India had braced themselves to give its female stars a befitting reception.
Interviews, promo shoots, profiles, headshots – apart from their first hit-out in Baroda – was the order of the day on Saturday, two days out from the series opener. The trioka of Raj, Harmanpreet and Mandhana spent as much time giving re-takes of whacking imaginary deliveries for commercial shoots as they did on perfecting those shots in preparation, in the nets. On either side of their routine drills were commercial commitments, the likes of which they’re steadily growing comfortable with now.
BCA, on its part, left no stone unturned to ensure that India’s first-ever televised series at home since they hogged the limelight in UK picked up right from where they’d left off. The Reliance Cricket Ground in the IPCL Sports Complex bore no sign of the fact that it hadn’t hosted an international match in six years. While the teams went about their business on pre-math days, a full-fledged 19-camera set-up was being installed on the sidelines.
The open-air press box too received an instant makeover. BCA officials revealed as many as 30,000 passes were distributed, majority amongst school kids and their parents, free of cost. The other bunch of thousands that were prepared for the locals were sold out through the three different designated venues in the city by Sunday, forcing authorities to print more hurriedly as the demand soared. With free entry to all three games, the stands to the right of the two dressing rooms, designated only for the walk-in spectators, were filled to capacity. At its peak, the head count on Monday hit 7000, claimed BCA while adding that Sunday(third ODI) “would hopefully be a full house”.
Apart from the DJ and garba dance during the innings break of the series opener, approximately 2400 fans formed an all-women chain along the boundary rope in an attempt to create a Guinness World Record of the largest chain of women joining hands in support of creating awareness for breast cancer-free Baroda.
Also among the audience will be the Under-23 teams that are in town for their Inter Zonal One-Day tournament. Rajkuvardevi Gaekwad, the chairman of Baroda’s women’s selection committee, has also made attendance mandatory for the Baroda, Saurashtra and Gujarat women’s teams across age-groups.
The last time the top fleet of country’s women cricketers played in the city, at the picturesque Motibaug Cricket Ground, they had a variety of wildlife apart from the near and dear ones in the audience. Now that cricket is giving them what they’d yearned for all this while, they’ve found a way of giving something back to cricket as well.
“There, that’s Veda Krishnamurthy. Kya marti hai, dekh (Look how hard she hits the ball),” said one from a massive gathering of spectators who’d walked in to catch a glimpse of the national stars in the nets on Saturday. He was corrected instantly, though. “Arre woh Mona [Meshram] hai, dono ek si dikhti hain (No, that’s Mona instead. Both nearly look alike).” The curious spectators went on to spot a few more before the action shifted to the main ground for the fielding drills. A restricted entry there, however, meant the crowd slowly started filtering out of the stadium. For those who remained defiant until after sunset, and for some of the junior staff at the ground, the rewards were selfies and autographs with two who are currently the hottest property in women’s cricket.
After wrapping up all her on and off-the-field commitments, Harmanpreet posed and signed away to glory while waiting for her “PS4 partner” to wind up. Even as a visibly exhausted Mandhana, who had an even longer and tiring day, walked up for her last interview of the evening, with the fading light forcing the manager and media into keeping the onlookers at bay, she didn’t deny a young fan the autograph she’d keenly waited for. “Arre, [it] won’t take more than a minute; she’s just an impressionable, young kid.” Mandhana won a few more hearts with that simple gesture.
These ‘divas’ have truly made a difference. And in return India, or at least Baroda, has gone out of its way to finally give Raj & Co. the adulation and limelight that is still the basic necessity to popularise the sport among the masses.
For now, at least Baroda has embraced women’s cricket with open arms. Can more follow suit?