'No one can take the pride away from us'
Shanta Rangaswamy, 63, is in the gazebo at the KSCA, and as she talks, she raises her hands, nods, mouths acknowledgements to a stream of people walking in her line of sight who offer their congratulations - on her becoming the first women's cricketer to receive a BCCI lifetime achievement award. We have been talking for more than half an hour when a lady from the next table walks over and sets down glasses of fruit juice, for interviewee and interviewer.
Turns out it is Mamatha Maben, looking very different from photographs of her in her playing days, when, like Rangaswamy, she too captained India Women. Some of Maben's early domestic cricket coincided with the tail end of the careers of cricketers she calls the "pioneering batch", which included Rangaswamy.
The two captains, covering the first three decades of Indian women's cricket, exchange notes. About the crazy days - before trainers, physios, doctors, BCCI contracts, WBBL appearances, lifetime achievement awards. When ticketed women's Tests filled grounds to three-quarters capacity, with spectators in towns like Dhanbad and Karimnagar packed in. The time when policemen on horseback guarded the boundary ropes at a Pakistan v Karnataka match in Mandya ahead of the 1997 women's World Cup. Front-page photos in newspapers and magazines. Crowds in Patna lining the street in appreciation of a Test victory over West Indies.
The past often blurs memory into sentimental black and white. Women's cricket is now better resourced today than it was in Rangaswamy's and Maben's time, yet its entanglement with the BCCI has until recently always been a tumultuous one - the attitude of the board ranging from one of gentlemanly assistance to generosity to lack of recognition to pure condescension.
Maybe the institution of a lifetime achievement award for women itself finally formalises a healthier partnership; Rangaswamy believes it has "signalled commencement of recognition" for Indian women's cricket. "I would be a hypocrite if I was to say I am not happy for myself, but the truth is, I am happier because now they [the BCCI] have initiated it. There will be a lot of claimants for this award and I'm sure all of them will get it - that is the gratifying thing."
Indian women's cricket was pitchforked into the news with the appointment of one of Rangaswamy's team-mates and comrades in arms, Diana Edulji, as the lone cricketer on the panel of administrators handed charge of the BCCI in the wake of the Lodha recommendations. This award for Rangaswamy a month later gives another pivotal figure in the Indian women's game a share of her time in the sun.
From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, Rangaswamy opened the bowling for India with incisive swing, and batted at Nos. 4 and 5: a female Kapil Dev before the male version showed up for India. Her full playing career spanned the period from 1973 to 1994, with 16 Tests, 19 ODIs, domestic cricket, "unofficial" Tests, and fallow years (January 1977 to January 1984 and July 1986 to January 1991) without any international series except for the 1982 World Cup.
"We laid a very strong foundation that helped the game survive initially and flourish later," she says, "and no one can take that pride away from us - that feeling of satisfaction compensates for everything else." Women cricketers of that generation can narrate a history of their sport. It features a cast of characters that includes eccentric big-spending administrators, politicians, government ministers, public-sector companies and the players themselves.
Everyone in it together. Debating, negotiating, squabbling, trying to organise matches, raise funds, generate jobs, and keep their sport alive. Patrons and participants in constant engagement. The regular on-field success against the rest of the world - no matter how intermittent - is what, Rangaswamy says, kept the women's game alive despite limited finances and distance from the trajectory of the men's game after 1983.
"We did well, otherwise they [the public] would have just dismissed us. Because when a team is doing well, people stand up and applaud," she says, and adds laughing, "If they don't speak derogatory about you, it means they are supporting you. That's the way you have to take it." If they ain't whinin', you're winnin': that was the view Indian women took as they made their way out into many other male-dominated fields in the 1970s.
As a teenager, Rangaswamy's love for sport at large led her towards cricket. She grew up with 20 cousins of a joint family as team-mates and opponents in the large compound of the family home in old Bangalore's Basavanagudi neighbourhood. Prizes for intra-family matches were pencils, erasers, tennis balls and the like. Rangaswamy et frères would travel to Central College to watch first-class games featuring Indian and touring teams. Her own cricket was learnt through observation. She also played badminton for Karnataka and captained the state softball team.
A club called the Falcons gathered other girls like her together, and when the state women's cricket association was formed, local National Institute of Sport cricket coaches like Nazarath and PS Vishwanath worked with the first batch of Karnataka women.
In April 1973 news arrived of an inter-state national cricket tournament for women played in Pune with two and a half teams. An intrepid gent from Lucknow, Mahendra Kumar Sharma, roped in Mumbai, Maharashtra and half a UP side for the nationals; Maharashtra had some extra players, who helped UP complete their XI; Mumbai won. Six months later, when Sharma announced a second women's nationals, 16 state teams turned up. Rangaswamy was declared best allrounder in that tournament. The nationals introduced Rangaswamy to women's cricket countrywide; national camps and the guidance of Bengal's Pradyut Kumar Mitra helped refine her swing bowling.
Tours by New Zealand's and West Indies' women's teams were successful but only matches after October 1976 were considered official. ("My 527 runs against New Zealand gone, Diana's 30-35 wickets, gone.") The first tour to New Zealand, in 1976-77, lasted 45 days. The Indian women were difficult to beat in the 18-odd matches. The players were billeted with local families, and learnt quickly that it was a good idea to accept any offer of "tea" in the evening, because it meant dinner. Refusing the offer meant going to bed hungry.
When the women toured England in 1986, at the same time as the men, Sunil Gavaskar came to watch them play an ODI. Kapil Dev and Mohinder Amarnath were supportive, but Rangaswamy says, "it was the BCCI that needed to recognise us, not individual players".
It was to take two more decades in coming, but the merger of the BCCI with the women's game in 2006 has been far from seamless. There were women's committees put into every state association but no real attention was given to the women's game. The playing calendar lay ignored, the six to seven invitational tournaments that state teams had competed in regularly every year were stopped, two-day and three-day matches reduced to one-dayers. It wasn't the quantity of the big bucks the men got that the women sought. "We knew the limitations and we never aspired for any such thing," Rangaswamy says. They were looking for playing opportunities.
The BCCI of the post-N Srinivasan era has looked to give a greater boost to women's cricket. If Sharad Pawar pushed through pensions for women's cricketers after 2006, the last BCCI president, Anurag Thakur, got them contracts, and the freedom to take part in an overseas T20 league. "It's taken them ten years, that's the only thing that hurts," Rangaswamy says. "They could have initiated this five years ago." The first five years of the merger, she understands, could have involved modalities. Then she lapses into Hindi, "Der hai toh sahi, andher nahin hona chahiye." Better delay than darkness.
Even before she threw herself into cricket, Rangaswamy's was a life less ordinary. One of seven daughters born to a 40-year-old widow, she went from Basavanagudi's Mahila Seva Samaj School to BMS College for Women, and then on to a job with Canara Bank, where she was a general manager when she retired.
"There were no men in the family, and my mother would say to us, 'You will have to stand for yourself.' Maybe we never had time to think about things like that." "That" being feelings of being intimidated playing sport in what you imagine must have been an old-fashioned and disapproving country. To questions like those, the woman sitting in front of you laughs and waves her hand. "We didn't care. If there were people passing by and they said anything, we ignored them. We loved the game too much."
Rangaswamy is tall for an Indian woman, half an inch short of 5'9", has a steady gaze, a clear voice and a confident presence. It is highly unlikely that she could have been intimidated even in her youth. When she walked out onto the field, rolling her arms over to warm up, she could hear spectators call out "Bheem, Bheem" - after the mighty strongman from the Mahabharata. "I used to take it in my stride." When batting, after hitting a four, she says she often turned to the same crowd, gesticulating, asking them for some applause. "Suddenly, from heckling they become your fans, and the next time you came out, you got a big roar. You win them over."
Rangaswamy's powers of persuasion were put to work in many ways, doing what Maben called "association work" while still an active player holding down a full-time day job. The tasks involved included the procurement of nets, balls, matting, sponsorships, and much else besides.
Take the triple challenge offered by train travel, for instance: physical, logistical and managerial. Imagine, for starters, a women's cricket team waiting to board a train in the dead of night at some godforsaken station. Sixteen cricketers, each with three pieces of luggage - a kitbag, a suitcase and a "holdall" (i.e. a portable piece of bedding) - and not a single seat reservation between them. This because all reservations were rendered meaningless if a game finished early or the team lasted longer in a tournament than they thought they might; the only way to travel was in the sardine can of the unreserved compartment for women.
"I would dread it," Maben says. "The train would be coming from somewhere else, stopping for two minutes, and thanks to Shanta, we would just shove the door open, pile in the bags, all 50 pieces, next to the toilets, and then sit. And Shanta would then go." Along the length of the train to find the ticket collector, to convince him to assign berths vacated along the journey to the girls. Five or six hours later, the team would haul their luggage along the train to find berths, rarely more than five or six for the lot of them, and take turns at sleeping. Anywhere other than around a mountain of luggage near a toilet would do. "Shanta was our rock," Maben says.
The women of today are far better served but Rangaswamy has a dispassionate assessment of the BCCI's involvement with the women's game. "The BCCI has definitely helped in providing better amenities, but whether that has helped only time will tell." The road ahead must feature more two- and three-day cricket for the states, job opportunities for the girls, an increased depth in their game, and more control of their own destinies, she says.
Only under Thakur was the BCCI's women's committee asked for its vision plan. Through our conversation, Rangaswamy acknowledges administrators like Pawar and Thakur, who have helped the women, but the next step she suggests would alarm old BCCI mandarins: "You should give the women not just perfunctory roles. Give them some powers, give them the authority to finalise things. Only then can you expect them to deliver."
Power and authority and the will to exert it. It was how Shanta Rangaswamy played her cricket, and for that she will receive a BCCI lifetime achievement award. For herself and her generation.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo