In India, sport is usually never the first career choice. When it comes to Indian women, sport is most often not even an option. Most parents are sceptical about encouraging their daughters to pursue any sport professionally, and quite frequently these dreams are nipped in the bud.
The unconventional parents who do allow their children to pursue sports have had to deal with criticism from the larger community, and at times from within the family itself. They have been trailblazers — showing other parents that if you let children follow their dreams, there is much they can achieve.
“When I started wrestling my family had to face a lot of criticism from community elders,” Geeta Phogat, India’s champion wrestler, once said. “People said I would bring only shame to my family, no one would want to marry me.”
“It’s not as if people come marching to your house [demanding you quit] but what society thinks affects the parents and eventually it trickles down to the children,” Heena Sidhu, the first Indian pistol shooter to be ranked No.1 by International Shooting Sport Federation, told AFP in 2016.
In recent times, attitudes towards women’s sport in India have begun to change. The successes of Mary Kom, Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and many others have made the country sit up and take notice. Sportswomen are now slowly being taken seriously and more and more parents are willing to let their daughters blaze their own tracks on the field.
Mithali Raj did not choose cricket, her parents chose it for her. Initially cricket was meant to prevent her from sleeping in, but soon enough it became what the rest of her life revolved around.
“I played cricket for a long time only to make my parents, especially my dad, very proud,” she said in an interview with BCCI.tv. “And that has always been the topmost thing for me, even today, my wish is to make them proud and make them happy.”
Sampath Kumar was her first coach, but since his passing in 1997, Dorai Raj, her father, has been her constant mentor. “Though I have been coached by various coaches during the span of my career and everybody has their importance, one constant person throughout has been my dad,” said Raj in the same interview.
In a career that is closing in on two decades, Raj has had her fair share of ups and downs, and her parents have seen her through the difficult times. Whether it was her mother giving up her job to make sure she provided her daughter with the best possible support system, or her father passing up a promotion so the family wouldn’t have to shift base, Raj’s parents have been pillars of strength.
“It was because of my parents that I took up the game in the first place. It was because of their confidence in me that I actually believed that I could be a world class cricketer,” she said in an interview with Channel 6.
Back in the 1990s when India played day-night ODIs abroad, MD Thirushkamini would curl up next to her father and watch the matches late into the night. When she first showed an interest in cricket, it was her father, Murugesan Dickeshwashankar, who became her first coach.
“My father has been the best teacher I could have ever asked for,” said Thirush in an interview with Deccan Chronicle. “Not only did he train me in the sport, but he was also the biggest source of inspiration for me, since the concept of girls playing cricket was alien to most.”
Thirush’s choice to pursue cricket may have been scoffed at by the wider community, but her father held firm. “Had it not been for him, I would not have even played the sport,” she had said in an earlier interview with CricketCountry.
She went on to make her international debut at 16, and just when she looked set to cement her place in the squad, injury struck. Thirush took close to two years to recover from a serious knee injury, and during that difficult phase it was her father’s encouragement that kept her going.
“My family provided me huge support,” she said in the same interview. “They kept motivating me. When I went out to play my ultimate aim was to make sure I had to do something for my family.”
That every time her place has been in question Thirush has made an impact is testament to her temperament and resilience, but she is emphatic that none of it would have been possible without the support of her father.
Much like her Indian Railways opening partner, Poonam Raut too gives credit to her father for all she has achieved. After encouraging her to take up the sport at the age of 10, Ganesh Raut has stood by his daughter every step of the way—even giving her the strength to make a stunning comeback.
“He is my biggest supporter,” said Poonam. “He motivates me to get better every day. I have played for the country because of him.”
Shikha Pandey was five when her father first bought her a cricket bat. She played in the summer with the boys around her house, but not once did Subas Pandey think that his daughter would take up the game professionally. When Shikha made that decision, aged 17, he was the first to stand by her.
Since Shikha was in the middle of studying engineering, Subas, who was a teacher, was adamant that she do her best in both fields.
“My father used to stay up with me till late in the night while I studied,” she says. “He would wake up well before me the next morning to make me tea before I left for practice. He has always been around — a silent support.”
Shikha steadily rose through the ranks, becoming a regular name in the India A and Board’s XI teams that played the warm-up match against touring sides. An India call-up looked on the cards.
Once she completed her engineering in 2010, Shikha chose not to take up a job and focus solely on her cricket. “For my father to allow me to do something like that was amazing. In a middle-class family, even to think of something like that (taking a year off to focus on sport) is crazy, but the fact that he let me take such a big risk showed how much he believed in me.
“He inspires me to work hard and dream big.”
Sunitha Anand lost her father barely a few months after she began playing cricket. While the rest of her family including her grandparents refused to let her continue playing, her mother Annapurna Devi allowed her 11-year-old daughter to chase her dreams.
“Four days after my father’s passing we had an inter-school match,” says the wicketkeeper who represented India in 2012 Women’s Asia Cup. “My relatives told me not to go, but I was a stubborn child and refused to listen to them. When I approached my mother for permission, she consented saying it was what my father would want me to do. Her only condition was that I give my 100% in my chosen field.
“When much of my family was against me, my mother stood up for me. It was a difficult time for all of us, and she truly inspired me to be the best cricketer I could be.”
Sadly for Sunitha, cricket is not a sport which women can make a living off at the domestic level. Apart from Indian Railways, no organisation recruits women cricketers. While she was still playing, Sunitha knew she would find it hard to contribute financially to her family, and as the years passed, her relatives began nagging her again.
“Relatives would constantly ask me what I was doing,” she says. “I considered myself a professional cricketer, but since one can’t exactly make a living off it, my relatives were never happy with that answer. They wanted me to stop playing and find a job, because, for them, cricket was just my hobby. At that point, my sister, Anitha, spoke up on my behalf and said that she would take care of everything so that I could continue working towards my goal of playing for India.
“When I finally managed to break into the Indian team, it was a really special moment. All the hard work and unconditional support had made my dream come true.”
It may seem like a cliché to say that behind every successful athlete is a supportive family, but it is the truth. It’s particularly so for women in sports; their parents not only have to offer the emotional, psychological and material support to get their daughters through the tough regimen. In many cases they also have to put up a wall that deflects criticism from the larger family circle and the community.
“Despite all the taunts and jeers that came our way, my mother, sister and friends, made sure I was always in a positive frame of mind,” says Sunitha. “I have been lucky that through every stage in my career, I have had the support of my family and friends. They have guided me through difficult times and always been there by my side.”