Award-winning sports journalist Suprita Das has authored the first comprehensive narrative history of women’s cricket in India, just in time when the ICC Women’s World T20 is on. SheThePeople.TV spoke with Das to know more about what drew her to explore the journey of the lives of women cricketers. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us a little bit about your background. When did you start writing?

I’ve been a sports journalist for 11 years now, 10 of which have been spent in television (NDTV). Writing for television though is way different from writing for print. So after years of writing 90-second packages, I started writing in the long format only around 2015, when I started contributing for Mint. My first book, Shadow Fighter, also published by Harper Collins, came out the next year (2016). Two books later, the newspaper/website articles can now be written with relative ease and a lot more speed!

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What inspired you to write “Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket in India”?

The idea struck me during the World Cup last year. I was at work, writing the India-Australia match report. Mithali Raj had gone past Charlotte Edwards’ record for most runs in ODIs in that game. And I thought, between Mithali and Jhulan Goswami, we have the world’s highest run-getter and the world’s highest wicket taker right here from India. But why aren’t these girls celebrated as much as they should be? It’s a superlative achievement, given the little or no ecosystem women’s cricket has had for a large part of its history. So my initial idea was to tell that story through the eyes of Mithali and Jhulan, but the publishers suggested I go deeper into it, and attempt narrating the history of the game in India. How it all began and bring it as close as possible to the present time.

How would you describe Free Hit in one phrase?

Inspiring. I hope it is! I would love it for young girls to read this and get encouraged to follow their dreams, whatever they may be.

Book Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket in India
Cover – Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket in India

You interviewed female cricket players across generations. What was the most challenging part?

While the research was great fun, keeping track of all the material I was accumulating over time was seriously challenging. There were so many days when I may’ve spoken with someone who played in the 1970s in the morning, and then a current generation player the same evening. So it used to get a bit hotch-potch. Also, for any work of non-fiction, it is practically impossible to go about gathering material chapter-wise, the way they are supposed to appear in the book. So, of course, I made a lot of lists, but failed to follow all of them. I just had to go with the flow of who or what was available at that moment.

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With your background in sports journalism, what was your vision behind writing this book? What was it about the story of women cricket players that resonated with you?

The vision behind it was to tell the story of the game in India which has never been told. There’s very little literature available on the subject. In modern times, the life and times of Mithali, Jhulan, Harman, Smriti may be well documented, but what about those before them? It was amazing to me that in a country like India that’s as cricket crazy it is, the knowledge/interest/fan following/interest was so little. And when the team did so spectacularly well at the World Cup last year, they made everyone sit up and take notice. I remember Mithali telling me that irrespective of the result, when they went into the World Cup, she went in with the mindset of hoping to make a difference with their performance, and hell yeah, they did that!

We have been seeing the entire discourse of discrimination and lack of broadcasting in the cricket context. Your thoughts while writing the book?

“I cannot stress enough on what a huge difference broadcasting makes. Visibility makes so much difference”

Harman has been playing international cricket for eight years, but most of India woke up to her only last year when she played that 171 vs Australia. Ultimately, it boils down to the will to do things, to be honest. I do see the BCCI and the broadcasters trying to improve things, but those are very tiny steps. Star Sports, for example, has about a dozen channels. I see so many of them continuously showing men’s cricket highlights and kabaddi highlights. I think there’s enough appetite for the women’s game now for them to dedicate one of those channels for that purpose. Even in the ongoing World Cup, just after Harman has played a blinder, they cut to highlights of a men’s match. They’ve got to do better than that.

While exploring the stories, any learnings or experiences you’d like to share?

I think I’ve just become of fan of this gritty bunch of girls while talking to them, watching them. Their personal journeys are inspiring. My two takeaways are the unlimited amount of passion that each one of them, across generations, possesses, to be able to get this far, and the supportive set of parents they’ve been blessed with, without which they wouldn’t have been able to achieve so much.

There has been a lot of conversation around wage gap in sports. What would you say?

The BCCI hiked salaries this year, and the gap between what the men and women earn could be called laughable. But I think credit must be given where it’s due. It’s a step forward. It would be silly for anyone to imagine Virat and Mithali to be earning the same amount of money. But it’s at the domestic level where the money is really needed. Without sufficient financial security girls just keep dropping out. Cricket’s an expensive sport to play at the competitive level, and the math often doesn’t add up, they might as well pick a more lucrative career.

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Tell us about instances and anecdotes that have stayed with you.

This book has taken months of work to put together, so it’s tough to put down specifics. But I think Mithali’s journey to become the world’s top run-getter has fascinated me tremendously. It’s been a lonely journey to the top, I can’t imagine having missed out on childhood and teenage like she did. And to think she didn’t even want to become a cricketer herself. Mithali’s regimented upbringing reminded me tremendously of Andre Agassi who in ‘Open’ talks of how much he hated tennis as a kid. Another favourite is Neha Tanvar’s story – how she took a break from the game for the birth of her child, went from size S to XXL during and after pregnancy, and then went back to being an S, making a triumphant return to domestic cricket. So much hard work. Hats off!

Who are your favourite writers and have they in any way motivated you to be better at your craft? If so, how?

Rohit Brijnath and Sharda Ugra are my favourite sports writers. Nobody writes like Brijnath, really! And there’s a different approach each time, it could be in the form of a conversation, in the form of a letter, or a tiny something he may have observed during a match – anything really – from a fly to a player’s shoelace! As for Sharda, I am so so glad she’s doing so much non-cricket writing these days. Enjoying her writing on football from the northeast of India immensely.

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Apart from writing, what are your other interests?

Reading. And reading about everything that interests me at that time. So at the moment, I’m reading a lot on yoga since that’s my current area of interest! That apart, cooking and listening to and singing old Hindi film music.

Finally, what is your next book going to be about and where do you see yourself in the next five years?

No definite answer to either question. I never thought I would be a one-time author, forget two! If a third happens, it may not even be on sport, you never know. As for the second part of the question, five years is too long term. Right now, I am enjoying writing on Indian sport and working on an independent basis, it keeps things interesting and fun. But I don’t intend to restrict myself to sports writing only.

Read More Stories By Ria Das

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