The Fire Burns Blue: A History of Women’s Cricket in India is the story of extraordinary women playing the ‘gentleman’s game’. The following excerpt talks about how Mamatha Maben (Team India – Women’s Cricket; also the oldest-ever woman cricketer to take a maiden five wicket haul in an ODI at the age of 33 years and 162 days) performed brilliantly while on her periods.

A month later, India were in Colombo, continuing their dominance against Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup. The tournament was supposed to feature Pakistan as well, but last-minute issues with administration resulted in the team dropping out. In five matches, the hosts never once made it to the three-figure mark. The Indian bowlers thrived in the conditions. Mamatha’s 6 for 10 off 6.2 overs in the fourth ODI in Kandy remains a national record, as Sri Lanka wasted away a promising start to collapse for 66.

‘The game started off with Jhulan getting hit and Ami (Amita Sharma) getting hit,’ remembers Mamatha. This ‘getting hit’ was, of course, relative: Shashikala Siriwardene, a Sri Lankan stalwart who was then in her formative years, found the boundary six times to get to 28, dominating an opening stand of 31. That was a good start for Sri Lanka in those days.

‘They were coasting. That’s when I brought myself on. I don’t know what happened—wherever I put the ball, it was either bowled or lbw.

‘I picked up 3 wickets and I stopped. I thought I had stemmed the rot so the main bowlers can come back. They got hit again! So again I came back and I finished the game.’

According to Mamatha, even those 10 runs she gave away that day were too much. One, she says, was an overthrow that went to the boundary, but we have no way of knowing more since there is no ball-by-ball commentary available for that match.

‘I didn’t finish my quota. Sometimes I think, had I bowled the whole 10 overs that day, I don’t know how many wickets I would have picked up.’

And to think, she might not have even played on that record-breaking day. For, incredibly, India’s best bowling figures came through a woman during her period.

For, incredibly, India’s best bowling figures came through a woman during her period.

Mamatha was in deep discomfort that morning, and was ready to sit out. Nothing doing, said Sudha, ‘I don’t know, you have to play. You go for the toss and come, field for half an hour and sit, but you have to play.’

‘I actually have to thank her for that,’ laughs Mamatha. ‘If anything has sustained me in my career, it is those 6 wickets. Even now if people talk about me, it’s because my record has not been broken.’

Sudha’s reaction was not unusual. Tough love is pretty much what most of India’s female cricketers get when they’re bleeding. In 2015, Britain’s top tennis player Heather Watson broke what commentators described as ‘the last taboo’ in sports after her first-round defeat in the Australian Open, by speaking of her period. ‘I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things,’ the twenty-two-year-old said, explaining the dizziness, nausea and low energy levels she felt during that game. In the 2016 Olympic Games, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui was as frank after the team finished fourth in the 4x100m medley event.

Tough love is pretty much what most of India’s female cricketers get when they’re bleeding.

‘It’s because my period came yesterday, so I felt particularly tired—but that isn’t an excuse, I still didn’t swim well enough,’ she said in comments that were welcomed back home for talking about something that people just don’t bring up often enough.

Cricket still hasn’t had this conversation, treating periods with an obfuscation akin to those blue liquids in ads for sanitary napkins and the black plastic packaging that the pharmacies pack them in. Female cricketers worldwide have been remarkable role models, being at the forefront of urgent social conversations around same-sex relationships, mental health and eating disorders—social media trolls be damned. But menstruation is still not something they’ve opened up about. Sometimes, it’s the habitual secrecy around ‘those five days’. Sometimes it’s a personal choice, say athletes—who wants to go around advertising their cycles? Sometimes it’s a non-issue.

Besides, for women cricketers who at every juncture have had to put up with ‘but they’re not as good as the men’, any sign of apparent “weakness” or inability only goes to reinforce those very stereotypes they spend their lives battling. Suggesting that women aren’t at their peak during their period will only give some chauvinistic uncle misguided ammunition in his conviction that women can’t be trusted with a bat, a scalpel, a ledger, or the nuclear codes.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Fire Burns Blue: A History of Women’s Cricket in India’ by Karunya Keshav and Sidhanta Patnaik. Westland Sport will publish the book on 30 November 2018. 

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