Transcript: Couch Talk 52 with Anjum Chopra

Couch Talk Episode 52 (play)

Guest: Anjum Chopra, Indian Cricketer

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk.

Today’s guest

is a cricketer who has represented India in 6 world cups. She is also a former captain of India and Arjuna award winner, Anjum Chopra. We will talk about the various issues facing the women’s game, especially in India, struggles she has faced as a budding cricketer, what the road ahead is, the upcoming T20 World Cup – India’s chances in it, and also her ventures outside of the cricket field.

Welcome to the show, Anjum!

Anjum Chopra– Thank you!

SJ– Let me begin with the topic that was brought up during Wimbledon by the French tennis player Gilles Simon that men’s tennis player should make more money than women because they play more entertaining tennis. So, what are your thoughts on women cricketers, whether they should be making equal pay, as much as their male counterparts?

AC– Yes, we can also start making as much money as the boys do, but I guess we will have to raise the standard of the play internationally. I’m not oblivious to the fact that the boys are catering to a wider segment, or a larger audience across the world and they are a globally accepted sport, much bigger than the women’s cricket. Yes, women’s cricket is on the rise, on the up-swing and we are doing really well internationally. But, at the moment, to cater to the international market and command or demand the same attention would be a little too far off.

The first step in that direction is the T20 World Cups being held on the same stage. It means that somewhere the visibility has increased for the women’s sport. So, that is a step in the positive direction for women’s sport. For the moment, yes, we will be very happy if the remuneration increases, (compared)to what it is right now. But, I don’t think we can demand or command the same as what the boys get around the world.

SJ– You have a coffee table book called “The Women’s Cricket World” which chronicles the difficult path that women’s cricket has taken since the 18th century, all the way to the current day. How does what you went through as an up-and-coming aspiring female cricketer in India fit in that narrative? And, what were some of the struggles that you had to go through as a youngster?

AC– The book basically showcases the immense legacy of the sport. Not many people know that cricket was started and played by women much earlier than the men. It was played in England with the maids of Bramley and Hambledon having a match. The first recorded picture in the history of any cricket, in men’s or women’s, is from the 1745, where there is a lady holding a crooked bat and wearing a really long skirt, the flaring skirts and the attire the English ladies used to wear and the maids used to be dressed in them. So, cricket was basically started by women and was watched over by the men. Then, slowly and steadily, the boys started taking over and of course, today they have taken it to a different level altogether. Not many people know that the Lord of cricket, Lord WG Grace, his mother, Martha Grace was the one who not only initiated him to start playing cricket, but was also his coach. If you are saying that the women have no initiation to it, or they are amateurs to it, well…they are not. The cricket was started or developed by the women.

From there on, to start penning down the history of international cricket, and then getting down to how it started to go across the globe, and how it started in India, was very interesting. I won’t deny the fact that it has taken me a long, long time. When I say a long time- it took me five and a half years to compile the book because I had to really dig into international cricket associations’ libraries and request many people to share those photographs. It was very cost intensive as well. Fortunately, for me, it is not just a historical book. What I’ve done is, it is stuffed with history and goes on to how it developed across the world, how it came to India and what ICC has been doing over the past few years, from just 12 nations to the 112 nations that the sport has encountered upon. Just getting the brighter side of it.

The spread of the picture from black-and-white to colour, to completely different dimension. Because it is a book not only of the players but of the sports also. All the candid shots of the players that one doesn’t get to see off the field- those kind of pictures have been used in the book to showcase the other side of women’s cricket as well.

It was definitely an exciting time to pen it down. It was very difficult. But, once the product came out, and it was launched by the ICC president Mr. Sharad Pawar, and in Mumbai by the Bollywood actress Rani Mukherjee. It boiled down to the fact that all the hard work and toil, burning the midnight oil, to get the book ready just paid off because you see it being accepted. When somebody holds it and says, “Yes, it is a nice product”, and it is a nice product, which shows there is a lot of hard work that has gone into it, you feel happy that the people appreciate it! it is nice, but we still have to go miles.

SJ– What were some of your personal struggles that you had to overcome? Let’s be completely honest, because women’s sports in India doesn’t have the highest priority. What were the struggles that you had to go through when the Indian (male) cricketers were treated as demigods?

AC– The struggle is the part of a sportsperson’s life. You don’t get anything and everything that is going to glitter. If you do, and you are able to handle it well, then you are a super genius. Struggle is part and parcel of the sport, and I feel everybody must go through that to see what it takes to become a champion and a leader. Whether it was travelling in an unreserved compartment in a train, or if it was standing all night next to a lavatory of a train travelling to play a tournament and coming back in extreme heat, or maybe answering the question of why girls are playing a male dominated sport, and what is it in women’s sport when there is no money, no future, fighting along with your institution for attendance and every single percentage for which you have to burn the midnight oil to get through the exams and get on with the proper degree in the education back-ground as well – it did require a lot of struggle.

My parents have always taught me one thing- prioritize the priorities. If it is the time to sit an exam, it is definitely the time to make sure you study and just pass it. They made sure that I passed it. If it is the time to play, it is the time to play. There have been times, like in the first year in my post-graduation when I was doing my MBA, I had to completely miss out on one of my semester exams to go and play a World Cup game. There have been times where I have missed out on a national final to play for an entrance exam. It has been both ways for me.

I’ve managed to study in the best of the institutions- whether it was schools, or St. Stephen’s College, whether doing a regular 2 years’ MBA and clearing out 52 papers in 2 years, with double specialization (marketing and HR). At the end of the day, I had a parallel career to look at. If not sports, I could probably get into a 9-to-5 job. Fortunately for me, I could manage both – doing a professional job in a bank, and then play a sport at the highest level and leading the country. It does take a lot of effort, but when you are playing for the nation, at that stage and that level, where you are one of the millions and millions of people who has been selected to wear the Indian colors and walk on to the park, with everybody else applauding. You don’t mind working that bit of extra effort because the rewards at the end of the day are much greater. Just by the raising of the bat with the country applauding and the next day’s headlines saying that you are steering the country to victory, that one headline on the next day’s daily newspaper, that sums up all the efforts you put in. The joy is much greater than the effort you put in.

SJ– Fantastic! Let’s talk about your career with the Indian cricket team. You were made the captain of the team in March 2012 after a 2 year absence. But, you weren’t a part of the squad that went to England.  Why do you think that is so and what are your prospects in terms of representing India again?

AC– It’s my wish. It was my wish earlier also; it is my wish now too. But, unfortunately, when certain people think that they would dictate the terms and they’d call the shots, that is where the problem arises. I firmly believe, and that is always going to remain a fact, that a team can play without a coach, but not vice versa. A coach cannot command a team, without a team being there. Even if there is no administrative officer, still 11 players can play on the park a game of cricket. But a coach needs to have a team to coach. When the administration becomes much greater and starts believing that they will be calling the shots and the players will be a pack of pets to follow them, then that is where all our problems are starting. At the end of the day, it is the players who bring the glory, it is the players who perform out in the park. So, the players should really be taken care of.

Here, it is just a matter of personal venom and personal likes and dislikes against me, which is so very sad because at the end of the day, my job is to go out there and play cricket and not think of anything else. But, if the coach or the ladies who are handling our sport think it otherwise, then nobody is benefited. The results are there for everybody to see. It is my job to go out there to go out there, work hard and play the sport and do the best. But, if it doesn’t fall in the right perspective of somebody else, then it creates bitterness and that creates a tiff in the side. It is wasteful.

We need to look up to what the BCCI is doing for the men’s team and the men’s team has become world champions in T20 cricket, but twice in 50-over format. Whereas, us, as a women’s team, we have not been able to do that feat even once in our lifetime. To improve the state of women’s cricket in the country, it is very important for us to win a world cup. It is highly unfair because at the end of the day, you realise that you are only one as the skipper from the side who is missing from the line-up, and the support staff, and maybe the team…everybody else are on the team, but the skipper. Usually it doesn’t happen in any sport across the country, or the world, but it happens in our sport. It is unfortunate because the women who are handling our sport are taking the country for ransom and it is so unfortunate that the main men who are handling the BCCI are probably unaware of it, because a separate committee is handling it.

Yes, still, the charm of playing for the nation is also great. Going out there and leading your country is an unparalleled good feeling that a person goes through in their own career or life. It is always nice to go out there and play for the country. But yes, if I want, I can go back and play for the nation. At the end of the day, you always feel and think if it is not worth it, then why?

SJ– As a follow-up on some of the points that you made there- Australia have won the World Cup five times, England three times and New Zealand once, and like you mentioned India hasn’t won it even once; and have reached the finals only once. What has prevented India from that success, especially in the World Cup tournament?. Do you think there is some advantage that the English and Australian women have, whether it is physically, skill-wise, or otherwise?

AC– I think it is everything- it is skill, temperament, strength, performance, handling of important situations, planning, strategy – everything put in together. Because, you don’t become the leader of the world for nothing. You have to have certain qualities, credentials and skills to become a world champion in any sport. In cricket, you need to have all the people who are a part of the team to be singing and humming the same tune and playing the same tone at that point of time to create great music. Just like how an orchestra is played to create great music, in the same way, the team has to gel together and perform as a unit when you have to play a World Cup. It can’t be individual brilliance at all points of time, or just a couple of people contributing. We’ve never been able to plug the loopholes that we always had.

I won’t say the skill levels are very different, but yes, from what it was the last time we played the World Cup finals to today, the skill levels have really been the big difference between the international teams from Australia, England or New Zealand. Or, the power, or the way they play the sport with the modernization of the game as compared to what we play. I don’t think we follow many plans, and if we do, we have the wherewithal to stick by them for a long period of time. That is because there is no consistency in anything- the players keep changing, the management keeps changing, the focus keeps changing too.

As I said, the people at the top are basically responsible for this. There should be a top-down approach flowing- the top management handling women’s cricket must have clever and clinical approach as the leader of the pack, the speed of the leader is the speed of the team. If the top management has the correct approach and focus, automatically, it flows down to the players. The players are there to play the sport on the park, and not for anything else. That will never change. That cannot change. The players are performers, they are students of the game. That approach hasn’t been able to justify anything for a long time, and that is one of the reason why we lost in 2005. We have played 6 World Cup semi-finals, I’ve been a part of 6 World Cup semi-finals but none of them have been able to materialize into a World Cup victory. It is just because of that. it is very good that everybody knows the Indian team is very nice, but there is something that is terribly missing- the missing link between the semi-final victory and the final victory.

SJ– How has the landscape of women’s cricket in India changed since the BCCI has taken over the running of the game? A couple of listeners, Aditya and Chandan, they have a question for you- what would be two or three most important steps that you would like to be taken to improve the performance and the popularity of women’s cricket in India?

AC– To improve the sport in the country is not difficult. The biggest reason why I say that is because cricket is the most loved and followed sport of the nation. So, raising the profile of cricket is not difficult. Raising the profile of women’s cricket- the only way I see it- is by winning more and more matches. a) by playing more matches, and b) by winning them. And, winning them consistently, not just a one off match or two here and there. That is a player’s responsibility to do that. I really follow how the Aussies play the sport, because for them if a player is well looked after, very happy and very thorough in off the field activities, they will be performers on the field as well. And the management ensures that they take care irrespective of which part of the world they are playing and whatever sport they are playing, they are well connected to the players, which is a missing link in our sport as well. As I said, the self interests are much bigger than the country’s interest. If you have to become world champions, we must ensure that we become great performers. Performers are not the people who are handling the sports for us, they are the players. For us to improve our profile, we just need to win consistently. Once we do that, I don’t think there is anything that can stop women’s cricket from taking off in this country.

Like I said, after the advent of BCCI coming in, it has really, really helped. Why I say that is, because we are playing better teams, we are playing in front of bigger crowds. Not that we didn’t do this earlier, but yes, when we have a financial muscle behind it, things happen in a much more structured manner. It has helped. The link between the men’s cricket and women’s cricket is the women handling the sport for us. They become a very coherent and important part of the cog for the wheel to run. Obviously, we all know that the BCCI has no dearth of any infrastructure to provide to the players, any help to improve the performance of the players. But, at the end of the day, the players are still not able to win. The missing link is somewhere joining the two parties is the committee. If those ladies are not having a vision and a mission to go out there and help the team win, then there is something wrong.

SJ– OK.. You have this initiative through the Women’s Cricket World, which is a self-funded organization. What are your objectives and what do you aim to achieve through that? You have a fitness DVD aimed at young girls and women.

AC– The idea is too simple. You just asked a question about how to raise the profile of women’s cricket, and this is probably the reason to the question – how to raise one’s approach on the field, for the players whose job is to go out on the field and win as many matches as you can and win consistently and play against the best opposition of the world  The other activities are- whether it is writing a book  which caters to the literary market, or a fitness DVD which caters to n-number of people who are into fitness across the globe, or probably do a film on women’s cricket to take the game to all those countries where cricket is not prevalent. It means that cricket can be taken to the next level, and that is my target.

I’ve been a part of this sport for nearly two decades, and I am what I am obviously because I am a cricketer. And people know me for that. At the end of the day, I would do anything under my purview to raise the profile of the women’s game and try to get it to the highest level across the country or the world. All the international products that I’m trying to create, or people help me create as well, the idea is just to do that. That’s the basic intention- the sport has to  grow and it is my time to give as much back to the sport and to the younger generation, as they will be the next generation to go out there and play the game and take it forward, carry the national flag forward.

SJ– Excellent! You served as a TV analyst during the IPL. This year, we saw Isa Guha do it from  the Set-Max Studio. Here is question from listener Aashish – he wonders whether you feel discriminated against in the world of cricket broadcasting? Do you feel there is any inherent bias or lack of respect for women cricket analysts?

AC– I don’t think so now. No. There was, probably. But, now, you have such a big example that people from abroad are also coming and doing broadcasting in an Indian channel , catering to a largely Indian audience. It means that they are able to appreciate somebody who makes sense, and be appealing as well on television. I won’t say that they are globally accepted. I don’t know, I don’t have the correct facts to prove my statement, but to speak from my side, I don’t think there is much for discrimination because at the end of the day, if you can make sense and be appealing to people, and you are able to convince if they have any doubts about the sport or at other point of time about the situation that is arising, then I think it is widely accepted.

This time, I was working for NDTV. I did have international male cricketers sitting alongside me. Working for a leading TV channel in the country on a consistent basis for the IPL, means that they did not have any qualms of a girl sitting there and talking about the men’s sport.

SJ– The T20 World Cup is coming up in September in Sri Lanka. What are your thoughts on the Indian team’s prospects there?

AC– As a cricket, team member, as a follower, as a supporter, I will only want our team to go out there and win it because that is the only thing that will help the sport, help prosper the game. Right now, I can’t say for sure, it is a big ask. It is a very difficult task. We need to have a vision, and a mission. Somewhere down the line the vision and mission have gotten confused in personal interests. You can’t be doing that once you have a target oriented, time-bound agenda. If you are able to come off that, because right now we were just talking about just 10 weeks from the main event. There is not much time, and the preparation needs to happen. And the present tour to England not serving a great benchmark or grounds for giving a lot of confidence to the side. But, yet again, when you reach the World Cup, it is a completely new ball game, it is a completely new setting. It is different conditions, completely new setting, the World Cup has a different mind-set altogether.

A particular team may start as favourites on the day of the match, but as the match progresses, you realise that you are on an equal footing ground. As it is, it is very difficult predicting  a T20 match, and we have been seeing that over the past 5-6 years. So, I won’t discount the fact of really going out and picking up the title, but whatever is the situation right now, I would like to take it on a match-by-match because we have a very tough pool coming ahead – Australia and England are both in the same pool as India. I’d like to be a bit realistic as well. To beat those two teams and qualify to the semi-finals? Anything can happen. It’s cricket, anything can happen till the last ball is bowled. But, you need to prepare as well to make things happen. Living in hope!

SJ– Alright! On that note, thanks a lot for coming on the show, Anjum! It was an absolute pleasure having you! Thank you!

AC– Thank you so much!


[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman