This article first appeared in The Cricket Monthly

After the idea for this article was planted in my head by my editors, it didn’t take me long to realise that the words cult and culture must have a common root. It turns out they both come from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or worship. But their journey to, and within the English language has been divergent; while one is used largely favourably, especially as an adjective, the other has a pejorative connotation. 

Not unlike the different roads the Australian men’s and women’s cricket teams seem to have taken in their manifestation of the ‘hard but fair’ manifesto the organisation embodies. In the last two decades, the men’s team cultivated an environment that enabled less than impeccable behaviour, while making it a habit to win most games of cricket. The women’s team on the other hand, seemed to be able to do the latter without requiring the former. So as most of Australia vilified their tainted trio, an independent review into the high performance culture of Australian cricket declared women’s cricket “unaffected”, as if the malaise that afflicted the men was a virus they were lucky to escape from. 

Maybe they were never in danger. Maybe it was something they had an immunity to, thanks to their very nature. And maybe that’s true for most of women’s cricket. 

The ICC’s Code of Conduct violations seems to suggest so. Since the ICC introduced the demerit points system in September 2016, there have been 137 Code of Conduct violations in men’s cricket. 118 of those were level 1 offences, 17 were Level 2 (including the offences handed out at Newlands) and three were Level 3 offences (all three handed down to the Sri Lanka team when they refused to take the field after being accused of ball tampering). In contrast, there were just 13 violations in women’s cricket, all Level 1. Of these, at least two were committed by male staff of the team. 

If this gives the impression that women’s cricket is less competitive, and there’s no such thing as sledging the women’s game, both notions can be shot down pretty quickly. Having played international cricket and followed it for a decade, there’s no question that women’s cricket at the elite level is just as fierce as any  sporting contest. And sledging, even in the harshest sense of the word, does exist in women’s cricket to a degree. Mithali Raj was once abused by the opposition during an India-Pakistan game. Megan Scutt has earned a demerit point for offensive language. Australia threw cheating-themed verbals shivs at New Zealand after an Australian batter was given out off a catch that bounced in a 2017 series. A 2001 report has England and Australia captains Clare Connor and Belinda Clark both admitting to the existence of sledging, and that it could sometimes get personal. 

But on the whole, these seem to be outliers. Whether that is due to biological, social, or cultural factors is unclear, but the general consensus is that the women’s cricket ecosystem is a cleaner and more respectful space than men’s cricket, right from the grass-roots to the elite level. Even when the women are trying to “bring the bitch back”. 

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“Yes, I was quoted saying that, but I didn’t necessarily mean with my mouth”, said Alyssa Healy, when asked about her ‘bitch back’ comments ahead of the 2017 Ashes. “We play a lot of competitions around the world, and cricket is really friendly. It was just about bringing that competitive nature back to the game. Bringing the bitch back was about how was I going to make it super competitive. I don’t think there was anything nasty or vicious said.”

Perhaps what nastiness exists in women’s cricket has flown under the radar because so few games were televised or reported on well, and now players know to watch themselves. But there are still a number of colourful stories that have become folklore. In the 1998 Women’s Ashes, the Australians left wrappers of a of candy on the pitch, ones of a brand called ‘Bye Bye’, which is what greeted the batters as they bent down to pick them up. In The Fire Burns Blue, a History of Women’s Cricket in India, there is an account of two Indian batters hoping to save a Test in 2006 by wasting time, “going so far as pretending it was raining”, and being abused by the frustrated English. In contrast, there is lesser evidence, however anecdotal, of things boiling over into unpleasantness, certainly not as many as in men’s cricket. 

“Our values differ to the men’s”, said Ashleigh Gardner, shortly after winning the final of the 2018 World T20. “We wanted to change them to something that really fit our group and we could agree to live by,” she added. Playing with fearlessness and with a smile on their faces were amongst those values. So even on paper, women’s cricket certainly seems to have a defined distinction from the rest of the cricket ecosystem. 

Cricket historian Dr. Raf Nicholson doesn’t agree. “I think there’s a myth that women’s cricket is somehow better an purer and more morally righteous than the men’s game,” she said. “It’s a way of othering the women’s game. On the surface that rhetoric suggests that the women’s game is somehow better than the men’s game, but anything that creates that artificial divide can be damaging, especially when it’s not grounded in reality. It’s almost saying that women’s cricket isn’t as competitive as men’s cricket if we say the culture is purer or better. We expect better of female cricketers, we don’t expect better of male cricketers. We should expect the same of all.”

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“ We got our values down to a one page document,” said Matthew Mott, Australian coach, of the change in values that Gardener referred to. It is no surprise that the country in which professionalism is the most widely spread is also the one where the culture can be condensed into an A4 size paper. 

“The previous years we had a nice document where in everything was prescribed, but it was a bit too detailed a bit too wordy,” said Mott. “So we said we may just prioritize what’s important and which is what the players approved of. From that point onward it’s just became easier to identify good behaviors and undesirable behaviors and then put it back on the entire group to hold each other accountable.”

That document is the result of behaviours brewing for almost two decades. Even in 2001, when Lisa Sthalekar made her debut, “the culture was all about winning,” she said. “When I came in, it was after the 2000 World Cup where Australia lost to New Zealand. The Australian change room was like ‘This is never going to happen to us again, we are playing for our country, we are never going to lose a match like we did against New Zealand.’ So the preparation, the due diligence, everything was planned out very meticulously. I came into a change room that had one thing in mind, that was to win and to win everything and it was – how do we get there?”

While this may rhyme with the win-without-counting-the-cost culture that led to the disintegration of leadership in the Australian men’s team, the women didn’t have that luxury; they were acutely aware of the costs. “We all had full-time jobs, so we didn’t have time to stuff around like the guys. We had things to do, a tour to play and then we are thinking work-wise, what we are doing and how we are going to make sure we get time off here and there. So, at the end of the day we were playing purely for the love of the game, we weren’t playing for our contract, we weren’t playing for financials or incentives.”

Just as Australian women’s cricket benefitted from a growing sense of equality between the sexes in their country, India’s cricketing culture was defined by those factors. “India has some emotional attachment also, not just professional” mooted Jhulan Goswami. “It’s not about just winning. It’s also about doing something about society. So it was about creating a self identity.” As with New South Wales in Australia, the culture of Indian cricket in the early 2000s was moulded by the dominant domestic team of the time, the Railways. At the national level, a strong desire to dominate existed, built on a foundation of individual excellence. But that also perpetuated a sink or swim environment for those who came in. The dominant memory of my own time in the Indian team is a feeling of insecurity; I remember the envy I felt when I heard that other countries would back a player for an entire year, irrespective of results.

Professionalism is now changing that. The undertones of reverence for one’s elders, and a sense of hierarchy which is often seen in subcontinental sporting teams, remains, for better or worse. “The closest we can get to a culture is the fact that they are doing it against the odds at every point in time. There is a sort of underdog mentality that works well,” said Karunya Keshav, co-author of The Fire Burns Blue. 

England and New Zealand, the other countries where women’s cricket has been entrenched long enough to develop a fingerprint of its own, have some overlaps with the culture that Australia shows, without as much of the Australian proclivity for white line fever. On the contrary, “We enjoy socialising with the opposition,” said former skipper Suzie Bates. Her team carry a New Zealand flag in the dressing room signed by almost every player who has represented the country. England enshrined values like honesty, respect, pride in what you do, well before turning fully professional. A young team like South Africa recently brought in a specialist on team culture to conduct a workshop, where they arrived at values that dovetail with the culture they want to lay down. 

As the landscape of the game changes, stories of a shared desire to grow the game are more common than incidents might leave the back pages. In the 2013 Women’s World Cup, the Pakistan team was barracked in Cuttack for security reasons, after threats from political outfits forced them to move out of Mumbai. New Zealand, after their group game, invited the Pakistan women to their dressing room, giving them their first taste of a World Cup atmosphere. And in the 2018 World T20, the Australian team accepted Ireland’s request to join their training session, and the captains and coaches exchanged notes over coffee. 

After they had played each other, of course. 

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“I think in many ways, sometimes it is too nice. I think there needs to be that edge on the pitch and I like to see that, and I think that will be my only criticism sometimes of the women’s game.”

This is Charlotte Edward’s estimation of the culture of women’s cricket. Over the span of her twenty year-long career with England, she can’t remember a single instance where a line was crossed in a cricket match, where sledging turned from a witty attempt to unsettle the opposition to abuse or personal attacks. “Sometimes it can get too nicey-nicey as there are so many players that know each other, it is such a small community of players. ” She recounted how England coach Mark Robinson once actually stopped a net session, just to tell the team not to be nice to each other. 

It is an impression that springs from the ground up.  Junior boys cricket sees the odd spat, but Sthalekar remembers junior girls cricket for cartwheels and dance moves between balls. Bates moved away from tennis as a youngster, turned off by the ultra competitive culture, to other sports.  “We don’t have heaps of  numbers playing girls cricket, so it’s not as competitive to get into team,” proposed Bates. “Everyone wants to make sure the girls enjoy it and come back next week.” 

At the elite level there is no lack of a winning instinct, but most players will also take every opportunity to talk about how lucky they are to be role models for young boys and girls watching. South Africa, as part of their culture workshop, adopted the hashtag #WeAreMore this season. “We want to be good people first. Once you’re a good person, being a good cricketer will definitely follow,” said Mignon du Preez, the former South African captain. “We also dug a bit deeper. We are cricketers first and foremost, but we are more than just that, we are girls, we have families, friends, we are daughters. Cricket is definitely a part of our lives but it’s not everything we want to be,” she added. South Africa is a classic example of a culture in evolution. In 2016, they had a practice of taking a knee and saying a few words in prayer before and after games. Out of respect for the diverse faiths and beliefs in their squad, they have since moved on from that. 

The sport’s largely semi-professional existence also means  that players bring to the game diverse experiences from outside the bubble of elite sport. Also, families are intimately involved in the making of a female cricketer. The fathers of Ellyse Perry and Smriti Mandhana served as their first coaches. Young cricketers seeking contracts rely on the financial support of their families. Crowds at women’s games will comprise firstly of their families and friends, their first fans. 

The subsequent disruption of the ‘boys club’ atmosphere at the cricket has a knock off effect of ensuring the entire experience is PG. Even in India, when I was growing up playing cricket in boys academies, they would often be more mindful of their words, and be contrite if they used foul language around a didi (older sister).

Every team is an island goes the saying, but the responsibility to grow the game seems to be common water that wets their sands. “If you were doing something that you weren’t too sure about, and if there was a young girl and she saw you doing something like that, would that be a good look for the game?” said Healy. Athletes don’t need to be role models any more than popstars do, but this seems to be the de facto mould in women’s cricket, and many other women’s sports. “It’s almost assumed when you come through that you are a role model and what you’re doing does affect other people and I think most take that on board,” continued Healy. “As players, we’re the one’s promoting it; We’ve taken on that role, probably unwillingly, but that’s just the way it is. if we’re doing the wrong things it’s actually a detriment to our sport and that’s not what we want.” 

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Some countries and some cricketers have deliberately tried to steer the culture of women’s cricket in it’s own, distinct direction, one that is away from the prevailing male culture at the time. The England women’s cricket association tried to keep the game as feminine as possible in 1920s. “The founders were obsessed with appearance and propriety. The feeling was that if they were seen to be trying to imitate the men, they wouldn’t get the support they needed,” says Nicholson. Du Preez has spoken all through her career that female athletes need not pander to stereotypes of the need to be butch, or liken it with being ‘aggressive like men’. “You can be a girly girl and still be a tough competitor,” she maintains. 

But in terms of skill, there has been an attempt to move the women’s game in the direction of the men’s game. These disruptions were often ignited by male coaches who came into women’s cricket having previously worked in men’s setups. 

“Jamie Siddons, who was the assistant coach for the Australian team, he kind of questioned our strike-rates and why won’t we hit over the top?” remembers Sthalekar. “For me personally, it was a case of ‘I can’t really hit it over the inner circle unless it is a juicy full toss’. So then things kind of changed within our strength programme, we started doing weights for the first time, there was a change philosophically, in how we played the game. We needed to play a more attractive brand of cricket as well, in order to get the sponsors and for people to watch.”

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The worldwide culture is now at a crossroads with the professionalism spreading, even into domestic cricket with the arrival of domestic T20 Leagues. “I think as time goes on things will change because there is going to be more at stake for these female players because of all the contracts, there is going to be more prize money and so on,” said Edwards. But for all money, the culture could keep going in the largely respectful direction it has been going in so far. 

T20 Leagues in men’s cricket have been able to make a few cracks in the deep rivalries that have developed over the course of decades of nationalistic professionalism. With national rivalries not not as hardened by professionalism in women’s cricket, the cultural cross-pollination by T20 Leagues could set standards for competitiveness within the boundaries of decency. 

“If I go up against Dane (van Neikerk) and Marizanne (Kapp, both of South Africa) in international cricket, it’s going to be a competitive game,” said Healy, who is teammates with the pair at the Sydney Sixers. “But personally I’m not crossing any lines. I obviously get along really well with both of them so I’m not going to go out of my way to be nasty to them. I think getting to know these players probably takes a lot of the nastiness out of the game because you know that person, know what they’re like off the field whereas if you only  know what they are like on the field it potentially changes things.”

Edwards also predicts that the transition will bring its own challenges. “I think we are going to have a tough few years because I think we haven’t got a lot of players who still come through the amateur-professional era at the moment. I think it is a responsibility now for the players who are in the game, and ex-players like myself to explain to the younger players the history of the game. Because all they know is that they get paid to play cricket. We have to keep everyone grounded.”

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I’ll end with a memory, one in which I was told to be aggressive. 

I was the fastest bowler on both sides, the tallest woman on both teams by six inches. It was an inter-state first class match. I was told to be the aggressive fast bowler, and not be afraid to have a word with the opposition. Even though that wasn’t my style. 

So I did. After harrying a batter’s outside edge, I went and told her something to the effect of ‘you’re not cut out for this, this is the big league’. It was a dig at the situation as well as her stature (she stood around five feet tall, I am a centimeter short of six). In the end, it didn’t help me get her out, and I actually ended up feeling guilty about it for days, especially because the batter was also my housemate. 

I never said a word in anger since, although a jibes at a floundering batter have often been too tempting to resist. But I thought of that incident while researching this piece. And I wondered if I would have felt guilty at all if I was male. 

Stereotypes of women as more emotional, less aggressive, and less competitive have coloured people’s opinions of women’s sport over the years, and are dangerous. And yet more nearly every respondent I interviewed conceded that women react differently. “The guys are very good at putting friendships aside and they will just go and play the game and forget about it, whereas I think in the women’s game it does drag on if something happens,” said one. “Women are emotional beasts,” said another. “Most of the time, girls by nature are not aggressive.” It went on. Coaches who come in from men’s cricket have acknowledged that they need to coach women differently. 

“Women generally suffer from a lack of self confidence,” said Dr. Nicholson, “in sport and outside of sport. It’s a wider cultural problem,  reflected in cricket.” Of course my guilt had nothing to do with  biology, but perhaps more to do with who I am by nature, and the wider social constructs that determine how a woman is expected to behave, and how the world is expected to behave with women. Sometime that can work out well; I remember playing for a women’s team in a boys tournament, where we threatened to walk out of a game because the boys used intimidating language, which would have been acceptable among themselves. The more sensible among them apologised, and the game went on.  

Women’s cricket seems to have found a sweet spot. “There’s no difference in how much we want to win, just how we come across in doing it,” said Bates.