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Memory of Indian Women’s Cricket Pioneer Mahendra Sharma | Cricket

The loss of Mahendra Kumar Sharma to prolonged illness left former Indian all-rounder Shubhangi Kulkarni emotional. For someone like Sharma, who laid the foundations of women’s cricket in India, it would have been great if he had lived to see BCCI launch a women’s T20 league in a few months and take the game to another level, thought Kulkarni. Sharma, in her mid-seventies, died on November 8 in Pune.

Even before anyone could visualize the future of women’s cricket in India, it was Sharma who took a keen interest in its development and made it survive 32 years without affiliation with BCCI. A former softball player, Sharma had a vision for women’s cricket and registered the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI) under the Societies Act in Lucknow in 1973.

It was not easy to raise funds to organize cricket tournaments at national or international level. Sharma managed to raise funds through donations because of his passion for the game. He sometimes paid out of his own pocket to keep the show going. Kulkarni, who served as secretary of WCAI from 2003 to 2005, praised Sharma’s efforts, saying, “He was a dynamic person who felt competition at the international level was crucial to popularizing the game and maintaining good standards.

“In the first national meeting in 1973 in Pune, three states participated, followed by 14 and 22 in the following years. Lack of money made it difficult, but he kept women’s cricket going. Out of curiosity, people came to watch the games in places like Kolkata, Indore, Pune, Lucknow and New Delhi.”

WCAI caught everyone’s attention and held its first camp for the Indian team in Kolkata in 1974, with Lala Amarnath as the coach. “Mr. Sharma has done it. It was a new concept. A former Indian male cricketer coach making the women’s camp was something new. He was very active and after that thought about bringing international female cricketers to India,” added Kulkarni.

Sharma served as WCAI’s founding secretary for its first five years and presided over the organization of their first Women’s World Cup in India in 1978, at a time when the governing body was largely dependent on donations from individuals and the government.

WCAI has hosted two Women’s World Cups, including a successful 1997 edition where England played Australia in the final in front of nearly 80,000 fans at Eden Gardens. Indian women played their first ever Test in Bengaluru in 1976 with Sharma at the helm.

Anuradha Dutt, a successful Delhi-based lawyer, took over from Sharma as WCAI Secretary in 1991 and provided much-needed substance to the game with a handful of sponsorships. She started pointing out the need to merge WCAI with BCCI in the 1990s, although it happened much later. “Mr. Sharma has certainly kept women’s cricket alive for so many years with limited resources. If he hadn’t started it then, India would be 20 to 30 years behind other countries. So credit must be due to him for doing his bit,” Dutt said.

“The final between India and Australia in 2005 was also a bull’s eye. It was a springboard to bring women’s sport under the umbrella of BCCI. WCAI was affiliated to the International Women’s Cricket Council (IWCC), but then all other women’s cricket organizations and the IWCC merged with the International Cricket Council (ICC). The ICC insisted that WCAI should merge with BCCI. They gave us a year and when it happened in November 2006, Mr. Sharma was the happiest man.

“He pushed all of us in WCAI to go for it and convince BCCI. And how BCCI has changed women’s cricket in India,” added Kulkarni, who was instrumental in WCAI’s merger with BCCI when Sharad Pawar was chairman of the board in 2006.

“It’s just great to see where the sport is today. With the equal pay policy, sponsors running for female cricketers and BCCI having its own T20 league next year, it’s heartwarming. Mr. Sharma’s contribution had brought Indian women’s cricket to this point.

“Yes, women’s cricket in India was Mr. Sharma’s baby,” said Dutt.

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