Women’s cricket in India has come a long way since the team played its ﬁrst Test match in 1976. One of the individuals who feels proud seeing the game move in the right direction is the country's ﬁrst Test captain - Shantha Rangaswamy. She led the country in 12 of the 16 Tests she played. She also took 750 runs and 21 wickets in her Test career.
But more than the records, she has been a trailblazer for women’s cricket in India. She is currently part of the BCCI’s apex council and was also part of the panel that selected the coach for the men’s and women’s team.
She was kind enough to accept our request to talk about her career and women’s cricket in general. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Let’s start with your early days. How was it to take up women’s cricket in the 1970s?
Shantha: I grew up in a joint family with many cousins and we had a big compound in our house. All of us, (girls and boys) used to play together. We played tennis-ball cricket. Even though I had an aspiration for cricket, I didn’t have a platform because women’s cricket in India started only around 1973. Prior to cricket, I had played badminton for Karnataka University and I was also the captain of the Karnataka Softball team.
In 1973 when cricket started, I stopped badminton and played softball only if it didn’t clash with cricket. Then I became the ﬁrst captain of Karnataka team and ultimately became the ﬁrst oﬃcial captain of India.
Back then, cricket wasn’t a lucrative sport. What motivated you to pursue it?
Oh! That way I never made money in my entire cricketing career. It's a passion. See, I grew up in a family where everyone played cricket in their teens (like many Indians). The decision of pursuing was on the basis of the potential. I knew I had reasonable talent. So, when the game started in India, it was an automatic transition from other games to this beautiful game. In a way, I was waiting for it (the game to start in India) to happen.
You are part of history as the ﬁrst oﬃcial women's Test captain of India. How does it feel?
It's a great honour to play for the country and more so to lead it. God has been grateful to me. I got a chance to lead the country to its ﬁrst Test and ODI wins. I have also been privileged to be the ﬁrst women cricketer to get the Arjuna award and the Eklavya award (by the Karnataka government).
On one hand it's a great honour, but also a great responsibility to steer the game to a position from where it will not wither away. You see, in the early to mid 1970s, many other games started for women but they just withered away. But women’s cricket hung on. It could weather all odds. That’s because the few international matches that we played, we could hold our own fort.
This credit of being the pioneers of Indian women’s cricket goes to all of us and I am proud to be one of them. We ensured the longevity of the game by performing well and laid a solid foundation for the game in India. Although we might have lost many matches, it was rarely one-sided. The game has not only survived in the country, but it's kicking now.
Memories of the ﬁrst Test win at Patna in 1976 against West Indies
I was ﬁelding at slips and the last West Indies pair was at the crease in their second innings. The batter swept and it lobbed to where short ﬁne leg would have been. I ran from slips and took the catch. That’s one thing etched in my memory.
But more than the game aspect, it was the celebrations that I remember. After the Test we were supposed to go to Patna Women’s College and due to the huge crowd and people lining up on the streets, it took us a long time to travel the short distance. The way people were rooting and cheering for us, it was a pleasant feeling. It's very diﬃcult to erase that memory.
I have read reports that the whole team was invited by Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, to Delhi after the win
No no, it's all false reports. I too read somewhere that it was the ﬁrst time that we all ﬂew. It's all crazy. Basically, we had met Indira Gandhi even before the Patna Test. We had met her when we had played the third Test in Delhi. So, some wrong reporting there.
You are also the ﬁrst woman to score a Test century for India
Initially, when New Zealand came to India, the team that played us here and later on in New Zealand (when we went there) was almost the same. The series that was played in India was made unoﬃcial, but the one abroad wasn’t. I got lots of runs in that series in India (which was declared as unoﬃcial). I had got a century in Pune which wasn’t considered for Test records. Diana (Edulji) also lost on many wickets from her ﬁnal tally. It all went down the drain.
I still want to take up this matter through the BCCI with the ICC and make those Tests as oﬃcial as it's virtually the same team that we played against a few months later. I don’t understand the logic in calling them unoﬃcial. They had come with their stars (Patricia McKelvey and Pat Carrick). The one against Australia was clearly under-25s, so I am ﬁne with those being called as unoﬃcial, but not the ones against the Kiwis.
So, I would have been deprived of being the ﬁrst women to score a century for the country had it not been for that knock in Dunedin (in 1977). My record would have gone up in smokes. When going in to bat, I had the additional responsibility of being the captain, but it suited me. I needed that extra responsibility and I started relishing it after a while.
Did you all ﬁght against it?
No, basically we were so engrossed in the game that records and statistics took a backseat. We were content and wanted to play more. But now at this age, it does feel unfair. There are many who played the unoﬃcial Tests but didn’t play later on and don’t qualify for any beneﬁts as they are without the India cap. Forget the ﬁgures that we lost, these people are not eligible for any beneﬁts from the BCCI. It still rankles. Hopefully someday I will raise it with the BCCI and ask them to convince the ICC.
How has been your experience in the World Cups?
I had taken up a job with Canara Bank and was sent to Hyderabad as an oﬃcer trainee for three months. So, I missed the ﬁrst World Cup in 1978 and Diana led the team. But I had done commentary for few matches played at Hyderabad.
In the 1982 World Cup, I was the captain again when we went to New Zealand and had our ﬁrst ODI win. But more than the ﬁrst win (against international XI), what is etched in my memory is the win against England. We beat a solid English team consisting of Susan Goatman, Rachel Heyhoe Flint and Janet Tedstone among others. Fowzieh Khalili played a dream innings of 88 for us and then she also took ﬁve victims behind the stumps. That victory ranks much higher than the one against the International XI.
Sharmila Chakraborty, who was a very underrated bowler also bowled well (ﬁgures of 2 for 23). She was a master left-arm spinner. As long as I was the captain, she played and let me tell you, she was a class apart.
Whom do you consider as the best bowler that you played with?
Diana is the best cricketer that I have played with. Her never say die attitude, her nagging line and length make her stand out. She was a thinking bowler and lusty-hitting batter. But if you ask just the bowling part, then it has to be Shubhangi Kulkarni. She bamboozled the West Indies team with her ﬂights and turns. She had a good loop. Bats-women used to struggle to use their feet against her, just like they are doing against Poonam Yadav now.
How would you assess BCCI’s role in the development of women’s cricket in the country?
By 1998-99, International Women’s Council merged with the ICC, but in countries like India, the acceptance in the oﬃces of BCCI wasn’t that good. It needed a visionary like Sharad Pawar to convince die-hard critics in the BCCI to take women into their fold. He did a lot of good for women’s cricket. He also announced pension for women cricketers who had played for India.
But if you see, we came runners up in the ODI World Cup in 2005 even without the BCCI. Yes, women’s cricket has beneﬁted after BCCI took over because infrastructure, ﬁnance and players comforts have been taken care of to a large extent. But there is a lot more to be done. I have not been able to discuss those. Once the situation eases (with the COVID-19) and we are back to normal functioning, we will see what more can be done. The women cricketers still get less pension than what a Ranji male cricketer does. There is still disparity, but with a cricketer like Sourav (Ganguly) at the helm, I think someday (god willing) I will raise this issue of inequality in pension. Not the right time to raise these issues.
They have also taken certain steps which I don’t consider as good like the removal of the inter-zonal matches which were of high quality. The Rani Jhansi trophy which we used to play was so competitive. They have dispensed with that now. They have the Challengers. But I don’t subscribe to that a lot. If you want to showcase women’s cricket, then inter-zonal are needed.
How has been your experience with Sourav Ganguly as the BCCI President so far?
To be very honest, the image that the media had created of him was totally wrong. He is very down to earth. He listens patiently and responds immediately if you send a message. He calls back if he doesn’t pick up. With a man like him at the helm, who is a cricketer ﬁrst, I have found him to be a nice president. Under him, I hope women’s cricket can make bigger strides.
Who has been the best Indian captain ever?
I would say as a captain on the ﬁeld Mithali has been the best among all of us. Look at the results that she has produced. Besides being perhaps the greatest batter for India, I would rate her as the best captain (even above me in case you posed that, laughs). She thinks well with her bowling changes and ﬁeld placements.
Your comments on India’s performance in the recently concluded T20 World Cup
Whenever the teenage sensation Shafali Verma batted well, we won. Surprisingly, Smriti (Mandhana) and Jemimah (Rodrigues) who normally are consistent, didn’t get runs. Harman was a failure as a batter in the tournament.
Overall, our batting didn’t click. I told you na, our bowling has always been good since the inception in India. We have always had good bowlers. It is the batting which has been a problem.
Somewhere, you know down the line if one is honest, they should admit that Mithali was sorely missed. She would have lent stability to an otherwise uncertain batting order.
What’s your take on the spat between Mithali Raj and the team management?
I think it was badly handled. I am not questioning the merit or demerits. A senior player, who has given so much for the country, can’t be treated in that way. No way! No player deserves such treatment.
We asked Ramesh Powar (who otherwise I was told was a good coach) that why did it go out of hand, when he came for the interview. I can’t say everything here, but it wasn’t handled well. Suﬃcient to say that. I mean dropping someone is diﬀerent. But telling that you should not sit here in the dug-out, go up and sit. These are all ridiculous things. Who says only the playing eleven should sit in the dug-out? It looked like they were taking out the vengeance on her.
What are India’s chances in the 2021 ODI World Cup?
I think we have a very good chance. But now the team will be deprived of match practice and the World Cup preparations has been impacted due to the Coronavirus. But since it is a global phenomena, all the teams are going through it. We have to take it in our stride and go forward.
Who are the promising youngsters in the current team?
Deepti Sharma, I would back her for the long run. No big hits, no fuss, but she is steady like Mithali. She also bowls and ﬁelds well.
Shafali (Verma), of course, subject to her improving her ﬁtness. But she is 16, so if they work on her ﬁtness now, she will deﬁnitely be an asset. Her hand-eye coordination is very good.
The two left-arm spinners Rajeshwari Gayakwad and Radha Yadav are also good. Then you have the leg-spinner Poonam Yadav. Shikha Pandey is another person who doesn’t get the credit she deserves.
Future of women’s cricket in India
It is heading in the right way. It could have been better, but it is moving well. We might have IPL for women soon. Another issue that I have is that only the South Zone conducts Under-16. When I raised this, Ganguly acknowledged the concern and said that next year all zones will do it.
What would be your message to the fans?
I would say, come watch the game. Spectators are needed. In our days, we used to have 30-40 thousand people in the ground. We used to play with full house like men's cricket. I am sure if we work properly, I see a very good future.