There is still time before women cricketers get equal pay, says Mithali Raj

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Jaipur: The Women’s T20 Challenge is here to serve as an audition for Women’s Indian Premier League (IPL). Meanwhile, India’s cricket superstars Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur and Virat Kohli have been fronting up for equality in cricket, inviting fans to vote for a mixed gender cricket match.

Are they just lending a helping hand to a fashionable debate or are they for seeing cricket going gender neutral?

On the tennis court, we have had Leander Paes gelling and excelling with Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis. Mixed gender events have been approved in athletics, swimming, table tennis and triathlon for Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

A lot of misconceptions about women’s cricket: Mithali Raj

But can India’s favourite sport cricket, where women’s cricket remains on the shadows of the men’s game, ever go mixed?

“There are a lot of misconceptions that we can’t play fast bowling or we can’t bowl fast. We should have mixed matches. I have also played a lot of matches against boys because that’s how we train. So it is very natural for us to play alongside boys and men but it’s very unusual for people to see men and women play in the same team. In that perspective it’s very important to spread that message across,” ODI captain of Indian women’s team, Mithali Raj tells India Today.

Gender neutrality in sport has been on discussion tables for the longest time but most voices have been discouraging, predicting it would be a mismatch.

Indian T20 captain Harmanpreet Kaur disagrees. “You never know. We practice with the boys. In four, five years, it may happen. This game (Royal Challenger sports drink #ChallengeAccepted match) may kick start things. There may be tournaments in the future.

It’s all about practice. It’s not that only men’s cricket has fast bowlers, we have them too. They may not be in the same numbers. Right now people wonder how it would happen because we have never tried it,” she argues.

Mithali says many miss the point that practising with boys is normal in women’s cricket. “It’s always been like that. Even at home I always play with the boys, I only play with the girls when I am closer to the tournament or a series.

Even in the nets with the Indian team, we get a lot of net bowlers who are boys or men. We try to play good bowlers because that becomes more challenging. Sometimes you have really quick bowlers bowling at you. But it’s important to push your boundaries,” she says.

With the advent of T20 and improved fitness standards, the women’s game is changing too. “We had no knowledge before T20 came in about the importance of strength. So with improved fitness, there is more increase in pace and ratio of clearing the boundaries and ability to play quicker bowlers. We used to bowl at 105/110km/hr and its now 120/121 km/hr,” Mithali says.

Only if we play (mixed match) would we know if it can work out. Maybe not in the near future but at some point, we would get to see it,” she opines.

Would pick Bumrah in my team: Mithali Raj

Make the leading ladies of Indian cricket, captains of mixed sides! Who is the first male cricketer they would pick?

“Jasprit Bumrah. As a batter, I would want to see that the best bowler is in my side so I don’t have to face him,” Mithali replies prudently.

“I would pick Virender Sehwag. I have always idolized him. My dad comes first and then Virender Sehwag because of whom I began to take the game seriously,” Harmanpreet evokes sentiment.

“I have always dreamt of playing with Virender Sehwag and if that can be made possible what else do you want? We have seen he has his own style. To experience it first hand, I can’t tell you what that would feel like. I am waiting to get that opportunity where I get to play with him and maybe I can pick up a point or two that may help me in my career,” adds Harmanpreet, clearly enamoured by Sehwag’s game.

Back to bridging the gap, Mithali says Indian cricket is lagging behind. “We are doing it now but English and Australian boards have been doing these sort of campaigns for a long time. They have been doing well in promoting women’s cricket in their own country. It’s only now that we have men and women cricketers trying to promote cricket as one sport and not as men’s cricket and women’s cricket,” she points out.

Mithali calls for more forums where leading men and women cricketers can exchange ideas. “This interaction helps to bridge the gap. That can only happen when you meet enough and not once in two-three years at an event which is not an appropriate place to talk about finer aspects of the game. We can become more friendly in discussing cricket only if we meet more,” she says.

Mithali not drumming up for equal pay

Interestingly while she advocates the urgent need to promote women’s cricket, Mithali is not drumming up for equal pay like tennis. She knows cricket is far from being tennis yet.

“A lot of people have a different perspective on this but my personal view is that while things have become more professional with we being centrally contracted, we don’t play as regularly as the men do. The number of matches we play is too less as compared to men.

Also where men’s cricket is today has taken a lot of years to get there and perhaps women’s cricket is going through the same process. It will take time and it will only get better because the more matches we get to see, the more branding of the sport, the more branding of the players. So once more people get to watch us, the more they will queue up at the stadiums and that’s how you can generate more revenue. Until then what BCCI is doing is great,” she observes.

Ask them about picking one thing that women’s cricket has that men’s cricket does not, both admit women’s cricket is still playing the catch up game whether it’s the pace of action or innovation.

Until Mithali finds a point to make. “We have got more classical stroke play. This is what we used to watch earlier in the men’s game too but perhaps now with the power game and crazy hitting that we see, the technical aspects that we were taught, we get to see them only in women’s cricket,” she states.

Can’t question that