On page 364 of The Fire Burns Blue, authors Karuna Keshav and Sidhanta Patnaik, both experienced journalists, write, “The Indian women’s team, observers will tell you, can blow hot and blow cold. You never know for sure which India will arrive for the day.” Their monograph can be best described by just rephrasing the above statement.
In their defence, it is somewhat understandable, given the acute dearth of written material on the story of the women’s game and the overwhelming dependence on oral history. But what impacts the narrative are sweeping generalisations, which, at times, border on naiveté.
The book scores in the rich descriptions of games, what happened backstage during key moments and in the reconstruction of key events based on oral histories and personal reminiscences. For example, it is interesting to note that the Indians were dancing in the dressing room ahead of the all-important World Cup semi-final against Australia in Derby in July 2017 at a time when rain threatened a washout. What makes elite sportspeople resort to such actions at a time of serious tension should be a subject of serious scholarly inquiry. Why would they dance and not talk about the match? Was it the best way to overcome tension? The book does open up key questions for future research by a good reconstruction of things as they happened in July 2017.
Also of interest is the fact that all the girls had eaten on that day, going into the game, were samosas from the spectators and some fruit, which was made available to them in the dressing room. The connection with the men’s semi-final against Pakistan in Mohali in 2011 is unmistakeable here. Just like in England in 2017, the men’s team missed out on breakfast on the morning of the game in March 2011 because the breakfast area was cordoned off for the Pakistan premier and, as it happened, the team also missed out on lunch with their food truck getting stuck behind an array of television OB vans on way to Mohali. Seeing tempers rise, Sachin Tendulkar had famously stated, “If you are that hungry, go out and score runs and pick wickets. Your hunger will be taken care of.”
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The section on whether women cricketers/stars should speak about their menstrual cycle in public and if at all it impacts their game is bold and pertinent. People hardly broach the subject, traditionally considered sensitive. Patnaik and Keshav have dealt with it at some length and, may I say, speaking on it can be as important as breaking the colour line in sport.
The book is rich every time it touches on the 2017 World Cup campaign—be it while describing Harmanpreet Kaur’s almost mythical 171, braving injury, or while talking about Smriti Mandhana’s gamechanging knock against England. Having spoken to almost all the cricketers who played a part in this victory, it is no surprise that Patnaik and Keshav deal with this high in the most entertaining manner.
Patnaik, who is also working on Mithali Raj’s autobiography with India’s ODI captain, may have done better while talking about Raj and her influence on the game. While she is one of the central characters of the book, it may be that Patnaik was constrained by the pressures of the forthcoming autobiography to reveal that much and no more.
Where they get it factually incorrect is on the issue of women’s central contracts. It appears from the narrative that contracts were given out for the first time in November 2016. They credit Anurag Thakur for doing the same. In reality, the contracts were first given by Shashank Manohar in his brief tenure as BCCI president and much work behind the scenes was done by Raj and Jhulan Goswami on the same. In fact, it was one of the major announcements in Manohar’s press conference as BCCI president in November 2015. While Thakur has done significant work to advance women’s cricket, including the setting up of the first residential academy, to credit him alone for everything good to happen to women’s cricket from the administrative standpoint is incorrect.
The book’s archival research is poor and it needs to be said that the authors have done little or no background research to piece together the early history of women’s sport in 20th-century India. To simply quote Amitava Chatterjee and Suvam Pal, neither of whom have done any significant work on the subject, is not enough—Chatterjee’s work, in fact, has come under intense scholarly scrutiny in recent times on charges of plagiarism, which I don’t think the authors are even aware of.
Finally, the book, as it stands, already merits a paperback with all the goings on in women’s cricket over the past few months.
For the first time, since the World Cup, women’s cricket made front-page headlines in India, albeit for the wrong reasons at times. Patnaik, for example, has written a journalistic piece questioning Raj’s actions and, yet again, the piece shows his slant of thought and lack of knowledge of the backstage. He has already taken a position and is seemingly closed to any other reality that there could possibly be, which is strange given his proximity to Raj.
Despite its shortcomings, The Fire Burns Blue is a start. While not presenting the perfect history, it does help in placing women’s cricket on the scholarly map and the authors deserve credit for doing so.
(Boria Majumdar is a sports historian and commentator)