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Monday, July 24, 2017

Watching the women's world cup: of wagon wheels and multiple screens

The big season is over for the women in blue. They've had more attention from audiences in India than in all the time they've been playing, forty years or more...not in blue, of course, but in the good old whites. Despite the heartbreaking finish, they come home sheroes, having displayed remarkable spirit and doing something few women's team sports have been able to do in our country--getting prime time coverage on a major network. For the whole tournament, no less.

For me, this season--as has been every season the women have played over the past twelve years--was a poignant reminder of a child's unfulfilled dream. I'm sure there are thousands of parents--maybe millions--who feel the same, but I can only talk about myself. And perhaps it is because of this that I--all of us in the family--pay more attention to the game than we would have otherwise.

Each year, from September till February, the BCCI runs the sparse season for women's cricket. The senior women play the inter-state matches in Plate and Elite groups, then the two top teams from each group play the super leagues. This happens for the one-day series and again the T20 series. The zonal team is picked based on performances in these matches, and the five zones play a series of 3-day matches against each other. Those who perform well through this short season are selected for the Challengers--a three-team playoff that throws up the players for the Indian team, the fifteen women who will represent the country. It's a season filled with hope and excitement for the players--and their families. Through the season, there are few headlines and fewer photo-ops. If you get mentioned in a scorecard in a tiny item under "Sports Round up", you're lucky. Even when there are headlines--as for instance, when Smriti Mandhana scored a century in the match against the West Indies--not many pay attention. It was telling that a young man who said he was a "cricket enthusiast" and had been playing at the state level for several years reacted with an "I have no idea" when he was asked to identify her.

Little surprise then that until this ICC World Cup in England, the only names that were somewhat familiar to Indian audiences were those of Jhulan Goswami and Mithali Raj. You had to reach that level of play, and records on the world scale, to achieve public visibility. With this World Cup, we know a few more names, but give it a few months, most people will be hard put to match those names to faces.

So every year, when my daughter plays in the inter-state tournaments (she's been fortunate to be part of the Hyderabad Senior Women for several years now, and the U-19 and sub-juniors before that), the entire household logs on to bcci.tv to follow the live updates. Her two grandmothers keep their iPad screens ready to follow the ball-by-ball progress, and if Ananya is bowling, they don't budge. I keep my phone browser open even as I drive, as I don't want to miss a trick during my long commute. If she happens to play in Hyderabad, we join the scraggly band of parents and former players who show up at the ground. Some seasons are better than others, and each year, there's a tiny bit of hope--maybe Zonals this year? Maybe the Challengers? When she was picked for India A in 2015, we travelled to Bangalore to watch her open the bowling in the practice match against New Zealand. Soon after, she began writing about the game, peppering her stories with analytical insights and an insider's grasp of detail. But the writing is a far second to playing, and covering the very games she dreams of being a part of is...not easy.

So watching the Women's World Cup live on television, as they played in front of record crowds, seemed like an extension of our engagement with Ananya's game. Many of the playing eleven were for us familiar names and faces, some friends, and many of whom had been opponents on the field. So the connect was intensely personal. And it was something to watch Ananya watching. During the play-offs, on days when there were four simultaneous games, she watched them all. Apart from the live telecast of the India game, she accessed the web stream on her laptop, smartphone, and a device borrowed from one of us at home. Notebooks open, a pack of pens of a dozen different colours for her detailed field drawings. And those wagon wheels--which to my un-sporty eyes look indecipherably technical.

Since the World Cup final, many have commented on how watching the Indian women's gritty performance has inspired many more girls to play, and maybe even given many more parents the confidence to let them play--seriously. But let me warn you, it's a tough journey--for the child and for the parent. For every Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana--not to mention Mithali and Jhulan--there are hundreds of others whose dreams may not be realised in full, and who will keep those dreams alive on the scores of dusty fields, in small and big towns, in inter-college and inter-district matches, in the inter-state and super league tournaments. In the hope that one day, they will wear the blue jersey and don that monogrammed cap.

And some will fill the margins of waiting with words...and wagon wheels.




Saturday, July 08, 2017

Long way home

Travelling back from the new city to the not-so-new-yet-not-quite-branded-old at the hour when some buildings glitter and others take on a cold, dank hue, I am offered unaccustomed views into the life of this predatory, leaching, leaking metropolis that my daytime commute obscures. If that is a sentence too full of qualifiers, well, sorry, that’s the nature of urban habitation these days. Or perhaps habitation anywhere on this planet.

Night has its unexpectedly revealing ways. It wakes you, when you least expect to be woken, and presents you with fears that you never knew existed. It can nudge you with a seductive brush into confusing dreams with reality. And it can render transparent the sheen (and the dust) that the day layers over the lives of others.

So it is that one evening, late out of work and wishing to beat the roadway traffic I am persuaded by a kindly colleague to take the train that passes for rapid transit. It takes the back route that ploughs through the underbelly of industrial estates, forgotten now by all except those who have made their homes along the walls and gutters and the faithful railroad that has no option but to run new cars over the old lines. A diverse array of workers—blue-collar, white-collar, collar-less—people the compartment along with a range of those who travel daily in search of diplomas and degrees…or just in search. I am fortunate to sit by the window, and I slide a sly glance over at the young man across from me. He is shut off from the sights-sounds-smells of the immediate, plugged in through shiny blue earpods to a sonic world of his choosing. Two others jostle in the single seat next to him sniggering at something on their phones, a WhatsApp forward perhaps? They look furtively at me, clearly unbelonging in my tightly clutched bag and marble-printed silk, unconvincing in my adoption of a slower, more reflective mode of travel, one that forces you to stare life in the face instead of beeping it out with impatient honks and swift overtakes. I move my gaze to the grilled window through which the peripheral city air blows in, carrying the remnants of many workdays—thing-making, metal-beating, brick-laying, beam-hauling, garbage-clearing, load-lifting, truck-driving. All the multitudinous ways in which the city makes work that makes a living—barely. Houses—homes—lie folded in untidy rows on either side of the running track, their interstices sometimes wide enough to allow a shiny bike, a resting auto, a hopeful car; at other times narrow enough for skipping children to find their way home from school.

I wonder if I can find this clutch of life on Google Maps, an old wrinkle in the young skin of Cyberabad?

At other times all it takes is a different turn, one that follows intelligent navigation instead of time-worn instinct, to find oneself in the middle of something that seems straight out of some futuristic architectural vision. Except that this is right here, right now. Steady lights on all fourteen floors, the smart set waiting on the sidewalk (yes, there actually are such things in this part of town!) for the next cab, wondering whether to go straight home or stop at some new-age adda for a drink and good natured cribbing about the tedium of coding. Across the broad avenue two large earth movers work overtime, lifting rubble and making space for more towers, more lights, more homes, more offices, more shops, more cafes.

More.

As for this clutch of life—such as it is—I’ll have no trouble locating it on that intelligent map.

I need to get on the train more often. To see the city that I’m losing sight of, to trace its lines on a map whose features are disappearing beneath the neat, unerring stream of data that’s redrawing it anew in ahistorical clarity.