At a time when Jhulan Goswami was seeking permission from her parents to be a ball girl for the 1997 Women’s World Cup final in Kolkata, not many felt she was being reasonable leave alone able to make a career in a male-dominated sport. Fast-forward 23 years, each kid walking out with the India and Australia cricketers at the Women’s World Cup T20 final at the MCG on March 8, 2020 must have felt privileged to be able to do so. In these long, arduous and often challenging years, one thing has changed drastically for the women’s game and that is respect.
Melbourne on March 8 was very much an “I was there” moment in the history of sport and each participant who played a part in making it happen is now an icon.
‘Beyond the Boundary’, the ICC’s Netflix documentary on the story of the Women’s T20 World Cup, draws attention to this change. Yes, Australia won it and justly so. They are the world’s best women’s team by a distance and there can be little argument over that. Yes, India came second best yet again but neither of these things compare with what the tournament has done for the overall health of the women’s game.
Results don’t tell a story. Emotions do. And emotions among the 87,000 present at the MCG on International Women’s Day painted multiple stories of emotion, which the documentary so beautifully captures and highlights. If we take epoch-making sporting moments — be it Jesse Owens in 1936 or Jackie Robinson in 1947 or Australia’s very own Cathy Freeman in 2000 in Sydney, Meg Lanning and her girls at the MCG will rank right up there. With medals round their necks and singing with Katy Perry in a night like no other, the story of global women’s sport, not simply cricket, will reflect on what happened in Melbourne with immense pride and satisfaction.
There were disappointments and in sport that’s always going to be the case. You had to feel for England and for Heather Knight and Danni Wyatt. To bow out of a World Cup semi-final without playing a ball seems unjust and unfair. You had to feel for Dane van Niekerk and her talented bunch of South Africans. To lose by five runs via the D/L method was cruel. But that’s the beauty of sport, isn’t it? The cruelty, which leaves a lasting impression as much as the ecstasy, is also the enduring attraction of sport. What is cricket without pain, agony and heartbreak? To its credit, ‘Beyond the Boundary’ captures both sides beautifully.
Lisa Sthalekar, one of the best of her era, said it aptly when she mentioned that the Thai girls who played the World Cup for the first time in their history always brought a smile to her face. Fast forward six months and you will know the value of a smile. In a coronavirus-ravaged world, to be able to smile is an ordeal. In an atmosphere of gloom and negativity, a sliver of a smile can make one’s day. It is something of a release that billions are waiting for and if in these times, Sornarin Tippoch and her girls are able to do so, they have achieved much more than simply win a cricket match. And frankly that’s what it is about — it is not simply about the standard of cricket or the stars out there. It is not simply about the brilliance of Alyssa Healy and Poonam Yadav, it is also about Nattakan Chantam getting Thailand’s first ever 50 of the World Cup and performing multiple acts of namaskar as she walked off the pitch.
It is exactly for the above reasons that I welcome every single match organised and played across the world. The more the women step out there to excel and entertain, the better it is for sport in general. The more selfies we click with them, the more mothers and fathers will feel empowered to encourage the next Shafali Verma. None in India will have to pose as a boy as Shafali had to do to play the sport she loves with her life.
For the Australians who started the World Cup with an unexpected loss to India at the Sydney showground, an 85-run win in the final at home in front of a record crowd was a fulfilment people can rarely dream of. It justified who they are. It helped vindicate the effort they put in day in and day out. Each of these girls, as the documentary depicts, have helped raise the bar.
On the other hand, and more so if you are an Indian cricket fan, the lasting image is that of Harmanpreet Kaur consoling a young and distraught Shafali Verma after the final. Kaur, 31, is exactly twice as old as Verma. And that one moment was all about what is good in sport. The baton, in that sense, was being passed on. Kaur is the present but Verma, without doubt is the future. It was a telling moment which was speaking out in silence. The final was not the end of the road for Verma and India. It was the beginning of many more such finals in the future. The same is true for the sport at large and that’s enough of a takeaway in these times.
When the next edition of ‘Beyond the Boundary’ is made in 2022, we need to document one more change. To push the point a little more, do we call Virat Kohli’s team the India men’s cricket team? The answer is no. All we do is call them the ‘India team’. Why is it that we say Harmanpreet Kaur is leading the India women’s cricket team? Frankly, she too is leading an Indian team and that’s why matches of the WIPL in November are as much important fixtures as those of the IPL. We don’t need to patronise the women’s sport anymore. We don’t need to encourage the girls either. It is time now to celebrate them. 87,000 did so at the MCG and millions will do so in the future. ‘Beyond the Boundary’ is a testimony to this journey and an admirable one at that.