This article was first published on ESPN.
At the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai, a young girl, about ten years old, has her cricketing whites on and is carrying her bat, but she isn’t there to play. She isn’t even on the field. She is in the North Stand, with one eye on the players on the ground, the other on the media “crow’s nest”, above where she is sitting.
It’s there that she has spotted Anjum Chopra, Melanie Jones and Isa Guha, who are commentating on the Australia v England women’s T20I. But Durga – that’s her name – can’t get past the 50-something security guard and get those autographs on her bat. Dejected, she returns to where her father is sitting.
A member of the fan community Women’s CricZone is watching. After talking to Durga and her father, he tweets a picture of her, and the handle’s 3000-odd followers bring it to the attention of the comms team. Soon, the three former players are posing for selfies with the little one, making her day – and a bit of a splash on the internet: Durga goes on to be featured in a news item on the ICC’s website.
It’s a story that reflects how social media is bringing fans closer than ever to the game and the athletes they love. Women’s CricZone is probably the youngest of a number of fan communities that have emerged in Indian women’s cricket. They have about 20,000 followers across multiple social platforms. Before them, Female Cricket set up shop in 2016, and now has more than 75,000 followers on Instagram alone, and over 100,000 in all.
Women’s Cricket World, which has been around for a while, is a Facebook page with more than 50,000 likes. It origins date back to when Sonali Kumbhare took some friends from college along to watch a World Cup match in 2013 at the Brabourne Stadium. Most of them didn’t even know women played with leather cricket balls. “I wanted to show them real women’s cricket”, she said to ESPNcricinfo. So impressed were her friends by the India women (despite them losing), that they asked: “Yaar, if they play so well then why isn’t there any publicity?”
Why indeed? Kumbhare decided to do something about it. A state-level legspinner herself, she had quit her job when she was picked in the Mumbai state side so she could concentrate on cricket, but it had not gone to plan. Unable to nail down a spot in the state team, she knew she would have to scour employment websites again. But first, she would be an evangelist. “I started a Facebook page just for Indian women’s cricket.”
But the more she read up on women’s cricket, the more she realised she needed to share what was going on around the world, not just in India. Thus, in 2014, Women’s Cricket World was born. “[Around] that time, England and Australia were getting contracts. Even though most of my audience is Indian, I thought they should know what other cricketers are getting and what we are not getting, and what we should be getting.”
The page did well and gave Kumbhare many reasons to smile; “A lot of people in my team didn’t know that it was mine, and they would talk about it at practice. That felt good.” Incidentally, India’s women players were issued contracts for the first time in 2015.
Kumbhare soon enlisted Vipul Raut, the younger brother of India cricketer Punam, to help run the page. Based in Canada, Raut handled updates for games that didn’t suit the Indian time zone. In 2015, Kumbhare quit cricket and started a new job, in research with a bank, and now runs the page in her free time.
The same year and also in Mumbai, the idea of a website dedicated to women’s cricket took form in the mind of Vishal Yadav, whose first job – with a website he had helped found, called Global Cricket Community — involved interviewing male and female cricketers from Associate and Affiliate teams. While speaking to the women, he realised, “they have a great story to tell. Nobody was bringing them into the limelight.
“Back then there was no such community”, Yadav said. “There were Cricinfo and Cricbuzz that were catering to both men’s and women’s cricket, but the ratio [of women’s cricket to men’s] was just about 10%. So I thought about building a platform that will cover only women’s cricket 24×7, 365 days a year.” In February 2016, with help from his colleague Srinath Naidu, Yadav launched Female Cricket as a website and a Facebook page. The 2016 WT20 gave them initial traction, and the numbers surged during India’s famous run at the 2017 World Cup.
Women’s CricZone was conceived after that World Cup, and is run by dedicated volunteers from around the country. Yash Lahoti from Pune is one of the founders. “I started DM-ing a few others [on Twitter], and we all thought we should start a website.” he said. “On mainstream sites like Cricbuzz or Cricinfo, you find women’s cricket in the ‘more series’ or ‘other cricket’ column, not the top four or five. That’s why we wanted a serious site dedicated to women’s cricket, so people don’t have to look deep inside another website to find it.”
All three sites work as aggregators of scores as well as offering original content: everything from listicles to insightful interviews. Yadav and Lahoti both have marketing jobs in the corporate world, and use those skills to promote their pages. “We started making posts of records and stats, and soon realised people want to see such posts”, said Yadav. Women’s CricZone and Female Cricket both have a dedicated but ever-changing team of volunteer contributors.
Kumbhare does most of the leg work on Women’s Cricket World herself, often struggling with the internet on her two-hour commute to her ten-hour job to post updates. “I’ve seen lots of pages come and go in last few years,” she says. “It’s hard to do it alone. I want to post [notifications about] players’ birthdays but I don’t get the time. Everyone knows when Sachin’s and Virat’s birthdays are, but no one knows Mithali Raj’s.”
Yadav called in sick, or found other excuses to make the time to be able to create content during the 2017 World Cup. His genuine holidays are spent travelling the country to watch women’s cricket. Last year he went to Hyderabad where the Indian Railways team was training and created a documentary about them for the Female Cricket YouTube channel.
During and after the highs of the 2017 World Cup, he received a number of emails and messages from young girls and parents asking where they could enrol for cricket coaching. “That gave me an idea: what if we can have a female-oriented academy?”
With that in mind, Yadav set off on a hunt for the one thing Mumbai does not have: space on a budget. He eventually rented a single net in an existing academy in Shivaji Park, pouring in some of his own cash and getting friends to chip in, to hire a coach and invest in equipment. In November 2017, Female Cricket Academy had its first net session, with close to 15 players. By December, that number had risen past 30, and they had added an evening batch to the existing morning one. Yadav charges nominal fees to keep the project running, and the profits are almost entirely put back into the academy.
Last year Yadav reached out to the UK-based charity Project Front Foot, which organises cricket kit, coaching and matches for children from the Dharavi slums in Mumbai. Project Front Foot quickly got on board, and they provided kit to Yadav, which he distributed to deserving students at five academies across the city.
The new women’s cricket communities have provided each other with healthy competition. “When they [the other sites] post, we feel like doing more,” Kumbhare said. “Sometimes I share their posts as well. I just want the information to get to the public.” Yadav is open to working directly with the other groups.
What is next for them? Lahoti would like to create more Durgas – it was he who tweeted the picture of Durga that led to her meeting her idols. “I had no idea that a single tweet could do such a lot of things – it felt great.” He wants to devise a way for young enthusiasts to meet their heroes, and is looking for funds to turn his website into a serious media presence.
Kumbhare wants a few eyes and hands to help on Women’s Cricket World. Yadav is looking to open an academy in Pune, where he has received the most coaching-related requests from outside of Mumbai. He also wants to continue telling the stories of Associate and Affiliate players.
It is heartening that two of the three communities giving women’s cricket a voice were conceived by men. “I come from a small town called Malegaon, near Akola,” Lahoti says. “In my school, we used to play cricket, but my sister never got to play, as only the guys used to play. Now, having lived in big cities, I’ve seen the difference it makes, and this situation needs to be changed.” At Female Cricket too, a fair few of the contributors listed on their authors page are male.
It could be representative of a new wave of young Indian men growing up with female role models. That is perhaps the most promising change these media-savvy, smartphone-wielding fans are driving.