In the heart of rural Punjab, a group of over a dozen young girls is cycling through vast farmlands. Dressed in pristine white cricket attire, their anticipation builds with each pedal. Their destination is like a dream emerging from miles of wheat fields – two cricket pitches, complete with plastic wickets and a concrete strip for batting.
If you’re reminded of the 1989 Hollywood film “Field of Dreams,” you’re not far from the truth. These 18 girls are the stars of the Gulab Singh Cricket Team.
Cricket, often regarded as a religion in India, has historically been a male-dominated sport. But times are changing, and this change is nothing short of revolutionary.
Earlier this year, India introduced the Women’s Premier League (WPL), a female counterpart to the Indian Premier League (IPL), rapidly becoming one of the world’s most lucrative women’s franchises, second only to the Women’s National Basketball Association in the US.
Indian women have been passionate and accomplished in cricket for years, but the WPL has catapulted them into mainstream stardom. They now bask in the media spotlight that was once reserved for men’s teams.
In October, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) took a historic step towards promoting “gender equality” by declaring that all contracted female cricketers would receive the same match fee as their male counterparts.
While these changes are promising at the national level, it can still be challenging for girls, especially in rural areas, to gain access to the world of cricket.
Meet Gulab Singh Shergill, a 35-year-old who embarked on a mission to make a difference. He founded the Gulab Singh Cricket Team four years ago, partly to chase his own dreams of professional cricket and mostly because he believed that the girls in his village deserved a chance.
In rural areas, girls often face limited opportunities beyond a tenth-grade education. After that, they are expected to focus on household chores until they are married and sent to live with their in-laws. Gulab Singh saw a different path for these girls.
Every day, these girls gather at the cricket ground. They park their bicycles under a tree, put on their cricket whites, and head to the grassy field for practice. Simranjit Kaur, a 13-year-old, is mastering her bowling skills. With each pitch, she is gaining speed and accuracy. She is soft-spoken and still very much a child but has had to mature quickly. Three years ago, her mother passed away, leaving her grandmother as her primary caregiver.
Simranjit joined the team after watching them play in a neighboring village tournament with her father, a cricket enthusiast. Her father asked if she wanted to play, and without hesitation, she said yes. She joined the team the next day.
Before school, Simranjit helps her grandmother make rotis for the family. After school, she doesn’t conform to the traditional roles of girls her age. With the support of her father and grandmother, she dons her cricket attire and heads to practice, often with her younger sister in tow.
Baljeet Kaur, Simranjit’s grandmother, is well aware of the traditional mindset prevalent in villages. She knows that many believe that girls should be married off and lead a life devoid of personal aspirations. Yet, she and her family are determined to defy these stereotypes. When asked about people discouraging her, Simranjit says, “I don’t want to stop playing; this is my life. I feel really bad because I really like cricket, I really like playing.”
Gulab Singh Shergill is not a full-time cricket coach. He works as a constable in the local police force. He emphasizes that the girls don’t have to pay for anything. His entire salary goes towards supporting the girls’ team: hiring a part-time coach, providing uniforms and equipment. He has even donated a portion of his land for the cricket pitch and aspires to build an office with a restroom in the future.
In just four years, he has exposed these girls to a life beyond the confines of their village. He proudly shares, “Now we can have matches between girls and boys. This makes them proud of themselves. They can now tell their parents, ‘I can do it.'”
For these girls, cricket serves as a respite from the societal expectations placed on them. For a few hours each day, they cast aside gender norms and embrace their inner child. Ten-year-old Harsimrit Kaur sums it up eloquently, “When we are playing a match, I feel like I am wearing a jersey for Team India. When I hit a six, I know I did it for India. When I play, I feel only one thing, that I am not playing for India now, but I will play for India’s cricket team someday.”
Shergill has strong support from the women in his life. His elder sister, Jasveer Kaur, affectionately called Bua, is one of his staunchest champions. She visits the pitch at least once a week, providing comfort to players who get hurt or simply watching over them. She understands the pressures that society places on women.
Married at 19 and becoming a mother shortly afterward, Jasveer is moved to tears at the thought of these girls facing a similar fate. She reflects, “All my feelings and hopes were suppressed because I was a woman. I was expected to work at home and cook. Now, I want to help girls achieve something. I don’t need anything else in life. I want to use all my strength to help girls grow.”
While Shergill may be selling a dream of becoming a professional cricket player representing India worldwide, the lessons he imparts to these young women are far more profound. Simranjit captures the essence of their journey beautifully, “There is no difference between a girl and a boy. Whatever boys can do, girls can do too.”
In the heart of rural India, where cricket is revered, these girls are breaking free from age-old traditions and chasing their dreams. Thanks to the unwavering support of individuals like Gulab Singh Shergill, they are defying the odds and proving that they can achieve anything they set their minds to. Cricket is not just a sport for them; it’s a symbol of empowerment and a path to a brighter future. These girls are not just playing for themselves; they are playing for the future of Indian cricket, and they are here to stay.
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