This New Year has begun on a tragic note. The tsunami disaster, the full extent of which continues to unfold, has overwhelmed all other issues. Those who have lived to tell the tale of that moment of horror will have to continue to live with it for many years to come. One cannot even begin to imagine the scale of the relief, rehabilitation and the healing that will be needed.

But just as the killer wave came and went, life also has to go on. And it does. At least for the survivors. And for many others away from the shores that have become the address of this tragedy.

This column is devoted to a subject some distance from the disaster. It is a subject that never fails to find space in newspapers and on news channels, regardless of any kind or scale of calamity that might hit this country or any other part of the world. I refer to the sport pages of newspapers and the sports channels on television.

Women's cricket

On the very day that thousands of people were being swept away all around South East and South Asia, the sports channel of Doordarshan was telecasting the cricket match between India and Bangladesh. People who watched the match the whole day without switching channels did not know what had happened. The match did not stop, there was no news flash, nothing to alert the viewer that a calamity of unimaginable proportions was unfolding in the same part of the world where the game was being played.

Not only does the media ignore women's cricket but even the grounds they play on are in a bad condition.
It is cricket I want to write about, not the men's game that dominates our sport coverage in India, but the women's game. Yes, women's. Women do play cricket and India actually has a women's cricket team that is fairly accomplished. Most consumers of the media would not have known that there was a series of One Day Internationals between women's cricket teams from India and Australia played in India. Some readers in Mumbai came to know of this on the very day the game was played. And that too because one of the Australian players was India-born Lisa Sthalekar from Pune. Hence, the media interest. But not many turned up to watch the match, played at a non-descript venue. And the fact that the Indian women beat the Australians was not the subject of much rejoicing the next day. The men's game with a similar result would have fetched front-page banner headlines.

'No proper board'

A 13-year-old reader, a young girl who plays for the Andhra Pradesh sub-juniors cricket team, has written me an irate e-mail on this subject. She points out that not only does the media ignore women's cricket but even the grounds they play on are in a bad condition. In other countries where women's cricket has become an accepted sport, the same board governs the cricket of both sexes. In India, she points out, the Indian women's team does not have a proper board of control and therefore poor facilities. Few people realise that the women's cricket World Cup will be held this year in March in South Africa. "The Indian women, who are a talented side — unlike the men — will hopefully win this tournament," writes my young correspondent. She points out that the under-19 boys World Cup gets more media attention than did the last women's World Cup cricket held in 2001.

No encouragement

Media attention is only one part of the sorry tale of women's sport. There are many girls like the young girl quoted above who dream of excelling in a sport. They hope that like women elsewhere in the world, this can be a legitimate goal for their lives. Yet at every step, their efforts are stymied. Rarely is there encouragement at home. Even if they belong to a liberal, open-minded family, they have to face the hurdle of inadequate facilities in their schools and colleges. The determined succeed in getting past these. But then comes the question of specialised training, of funds, of finding the influence to get into special training squads and of ultimately making it to the State or national team.

The mother of this young girl, who clearly belongs to that exceptional group of parents who encourage their daughters to pursue sport, says that the treatment girls receive when they do join any team is terrible. She writes that while she can ensure that her daughter has enough food and money to buy things when she travels with the team, "most of the girls come from lower income families and look to participation in such sports as a way of getting into college and then a job on the sports quota. Often there is no woman accompanying the girls and they stay in the most decrepit places and often have to manage on their own for food." Under such conditions, how can one expect women's sports to flourish?

The arena of sports is a great equaliser, or should be. Your class, or caste or religion should not count. Your ability to excel as an individual or as a member of a team is what matters. India boasts not just of its secularism — as evident in the composition of its sporting teams — but of its aim to hit the high notes in sporting events, our dismal performance at the recent Olympics notwithstanding, or for that matter the sorry state of our over-hyped men's cricket team. Yet, it has failed to support the desire of half of its population, that of women, to participate and shine in sport.

If a woman, or a group of women, does well in any sport in India, it is despite the State and the establishment and not because of it. Their achievements therefore are that much greater than of those who are pampered and feted, even for failing continuously.