Meet the “superwomen” who play cricket against all odds
Imagine shooting a third man with the help of a walking stick. Or want to hit a slash shot on the back foot only to find it doesn’t move. Sounds impossible? Not for these superwomen.
Tasnim, 26, grew up in notorious Wasseypur in Jharkhand, where it was considered unsafe for a woman to leave the house, let alone exercise in the sun. Today she is a school teacher that everyone looks up to.
Lalita, 26, grew up in a tribal village in Gujarat with just enough resources to make ends meet. She now has a young daughter to take care of, but her house still has no TV and limited electricity.
Tasnim and Lalita grew up in different parts of the country, one grew up watching cricket every day, the other never had access to the sport. Today both are state level cricketers and have played for India’s first disabled women’s cricket team.
But there’s one more thing that brings them together – polio.
This story is made in partnership with BBC News and is part of the BBC She project where we are working on journalism to cater to a female audience.
Click here to find out more about the BBC She project
“I was a huge Irfan Pathan fan as a kid, I never missed a single game. But I knew my limits. I thought I will not even watch a single game in a stadium, let alone play it. Because of my polio, I had very little expectation from life, I was depressed,” says Tasnim.
“But today there’s a newfound confidence, people have started to know me,” she says.
There are dozens of Tasnims and Lalitas in India who, despite their physical limitations, play cricket, a sport that is still largely male-dominated.
There are more than 1.2 million disabled women in India, almost 70% of whom live in rural areas with virtually no access and without basic resources to support their diverse abilities.
Nonetheless, these sportswomen find the strength to pursue their passion for cricket, challenging societal norms, organizing gear, traveling across cities and, more importantly, inspiring a segment of the community to dream against all odds.
The first disabled women’s cricket team
In 2019, India’s first ever cricket camp for disabled women was organized in Gujarat with the help of the Baroda Cricket Association.
Nitendra Singh, the head coach who led this effort, says: “Girls with disabilities have a lot more determination and will try to prove themselves than any non-disabled person. They’re constantly trying to fit in by doing something special and putting their lives on the line.”
This camp showed a handful of women a new path. It helped identify the best women cricket players and eventually became a catalyst for the formation of India’s first cricket team for women with disabilities.
But little progress has been made since then. Most states struggle to even have their own disabled cricketing team.
In 2021, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) established a Committee for Disabled Cricket Players, but no funding has been allocated to it so far.
There is not a single government policy that provides financial support to disabled cricketers. There is also no clear path for these disabled cricketers to get jobs. Sports like para badminton and para athletics have better chances as they have national level tournaments, are part of the Paralympics and can represent the country and get jobs through sports quotas.
Despite this lack of a clear career path, some of these women have amazed everyone with their stamina and dedication.
Already every Sunday 15-20 girls from different parts of Gujarat come together to train for a team that currently has a bleak future.
One of them is 26-year-old Lalita, who is from Umariya Village in Dahod, Gujarat. And regularly makes the 150 km trip to Vadodara for training.
Suffering from polio at the age of two, Lalita has hardly any function in her left leg. That doesn’t stop them from showing amazing footwork when hitting. She stands with the support of a stick, but her stance and bat flow are on par with any other professional batsman.
“The first time I watched cricket was on my phone in 2018, so I felt like playing it. Even today I don’t have a TV to watch the game, but I still dream of representing my country internationally,” says Lalita, overwhelmed by the camera attention.
Lalita is backed by a support system like no other. Her husband Praveen, a day laborer, drives her to practice for almost eight hours, taking care of their 5-month-old daughter while Lalita toils in the fields.
“People often comment on Lalita’s clothes when we go to training, no woman in our village wears a t-shirt and pants. They also comment on how she can play when she can barely walk, but I just ignore what they say, I just want my wife to move forward and keep making us proud,” says Praveen.
People like Praveen are proof that sport knows no gender and all it takes is genuine support and belief in what female athletes can achieve.
Much thought has been given to the gender barrier in India’s favorite sport, but there are other issues faced by players like Tasnim and Lalita that are often taken for granted or overlooked.
Lack of support
Disability cricket requires much more than just the equipment – it requires a special pitch setting, runners for bats with leg disabilities and a power play approach to get the most out of the players.
“Today, because of initiatives like the Women’s Premier League, people know at least a few players in the country. But we don’t even have the facilities to play a single tournament,” said Aaliya Khan, captain of India’s first disabled women’s cricket team.
She goes on to say they are looked down on just for trying to play the sport.
“It’s so often I hear, ‘Even normal girls can’t play cricket, and you want to play with one hand?’ You know the position of women in society, I often hear that I should take care of children at home and not waste time playing outside.”
The Divyang Cricket Control Board of India (DCCBI) recently created a separate committee for women, but despite this there is a clear shortage of women administrators to head this body for disabled women cricketers.
Blind cricket women in the country are doing a little better due to support from Corporate Social Responsibility and funding from the Cricket Association for the Blind in India (CABI).
“Ideally, all bodies, be it DCCBI, CABI or BCCI, should come together to create a structure that supports this cricket. Players come, play and win, but there’s no one even watching. How is anyone supposed to understand that he too can play and do it really well?” says coach Nitendra Singh on a call from Australia.
At a time when their able-bodied peers are being paid millions of dollars to play in a league, advertisers are bidding huge amounts of money for advertising space, and people are buying tickets to watch them play, this obscure disabled cricket team is training with no hope at all for similar recognition.
They train out of sheer passion for themselves, to find a place in the community and to represent other women who haven’t found the courage and support to break the bonds.
(BBCShe Series Producer: Divya Arya, BBC)