Hailing from humble beginnings, Kerala’s women cricketers are smashing social barriers

After the celebrated selection and performances of players like Sajana Sajeevan, Asha Shobana and Minnu Mani, women’s cricket has more takers in Kerala.
Sajana Sajeevan
Sajana Sajeevan
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Cricket of the limited overs can at times produce the effect of a mystery novel, keeping you guessing on what’s to come till the very last chapter, or in this case the very last ball. The opening match of the Women’s Premier League in February played between the Delhi Capitals and the Mumbai Indians, was one such. DC, batting first, finished with a defendable 171/5, a lovely knock of 75 off 53 balls coming from English all-rounder Alice Capsey. Towards the end of MI’s innings, like in a thriller novel, Alice was again on the crease, bowling the last over of the match. MI’s chances of victory were not bad at the time, needing 12 off the remaining six balls with six wickets in hand. But in five balls, Alice brought down two wickets, including that of the MI captain Harmanpreet Kaur, while giving away seven runs. That left five to win off the last ball, when the eighth batter walked into the pitch.

Sajana Sajeevan was making her debut in the WPL that day. But there were no jitters of a first-timer when she lifted her bat and sent the ball shooting over long-on for six. Alice Capsey crouched down in shock, as Sajana ran to lift up her (non-striker) teammate Amanjaut Kaur and celebrate the victory. She could not have asked for a better debut, she says, counting it as one of the most defining moments of her career. 

Sajana is one of the three women cricketers who made it to the WPL from Kerala, in its two seasons. After Minnu Mani’s selection in Delhi Capitals for the debut season last year, two more women made it in 2024 — Sajana went to Mumbai Indians and Asha Shobana to Royal Challengers Bangalore, which incidentally won the tournament this year. Both Sajana and Asha made headlines with their respective match-winning performances.

Sajana during bowling practice
Sajana during bowling practice

“The six for Mumbai Indians in that debut match, and captaining the winning team for the under-23 interstate title of the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) in 2018 – these are both turning points in my career,” Sajana tells TNM, on a day she is at the Thiruvananthapuram chapter of the Kerala Cricket Association (KCA). 

In the last two decades, the KCA has played a big role in turning women’s cricket into a serious sport as well as a professional career for women.

KCA’s role

It was in 2006-07 that the Women’s Cricket Association, an independent body until then, was brought under the BCCI. “That is when the KCA took active interest in women’s cricket,” says Biju George, former fielding coach of the Indian women’s team. 

By 2008, the KCA opened women’s cricket academies in three centres: Thodupuzha in Idukki, Mannanam in Kottayam, and Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad. “In 2007, we launched a program called Mission 2020 to produce cricketers at the national level. The women’s academies were started as part of this, and we began recruiting players from a young age — for the under 13, under 15, under 17 and under 19 categories,” says TC Mathew, former secretary of the KCA. 

The girls would stay at the academies through their school years, while they were provided education and cricket coaching for free.

Minnu Mani (25) and Sajana (29), hailing from remote villages in Wayanad, have been trained at the academy in Wayanad. In an interview last year, Minnu told us that she was at the academy from Class nine to the time she joined her Bachelor’s degree course. This meant that she, like several other girls joining the academy, stayed there for school and practice, away from home. 

Minnu Mani
Minnu Mani

Sajana, however, was a late entrant, learning about women’s cricket only by the time she was in Plus Two and joining the under-19 category.

“Sajana should have played first class cricket much before. Look at how she won the best catch award of the WPL this year, with a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh,” says Nazer Machan, KCA’s Wayanad District Association secretary. The catch he mentions – possibly yet another defining moment in Sajana’s career – had her sprinting fast, diving forth, and most remarkably holding onto the ball as she slid on the ground.

Wayanad paving the way

Both Sajana and Minnu, having attended high school at different government higher secondary schools in Wayanad, mention Special Education teacher Elsamma as instrumental in directing them towards cricket. Elsamma tells us how her daughter Anumol Baby — now a selector of the Kerala cricket team — played a role in Wayanad forming its first women’s cricket team. 

Minnu at bowling practice
Minnu at bowling practice

“Twenty years ago, Wayanad did not even have a cricket team for women. My daughter Anumol Baby, who is a cricketer, used to play for Ernakulam, Thrissur, and Kannur districts. She once asked me if I could give her a few students from my school (to form the Wayanad team), if she and another girl came along. That is how I selected girls for the first team from Wayanad, giving priority to those who knew the game a little. I got 14 girls, and together with Anumol and her friend, they were 16. They lost every match that first year, with hardly any training to go ahead with. The next year, they beat two districts, and the third year they beat four. From the fourth year, the Wayanad women’s team – under 16 or 19 or 23 – has always ended up winners, at the state level and later the zone level,” Elsamma says.

There are now six women from Wayanad in the Kerala state team. The process of getting selected in the Kerala team involves going through camps, then getting selected to a district team, from there to a zone, and then the state. Districts are divided into three zones: north, south, and central. The first games are played between districts of the same zone, to form a single zonal team with the best players of different districts. The three zonal teams thus formed will then play each other. 

When Kerala women won the under-23 championship
When Kerala women won the under-23 championshipSuman Sharma

“In the early days, it was difficult to convince the parents of several of these kids to send them for training. Many of them come from tribal areas, where cricket is not so known. Most of the students are also from financially poor families. In the first years, I used to spend money to buy them sporting clothes, balls, bats, and the rest of the gear. Later, when it became too much, I started to ask other members of the staff, who also contributed. When the KCA became active, they began providing equipment and facilities to the girls who joined the academies. But not all girls would go there,” Elsamma says.

Contribution of women teachers, coaches 

Teachers like Elsamma have been crucial in the growth of women’s cricket in Kerala. Coach Biju George mentions the names of two other people, who also made a lot of effort in the 1980s and 90s. “Sarada teacher and Sabeena teacher, both of whom have passed away. But their contribution to nurturing girls in cricket, even shelling out money from their own pockets for it, should not be forgotten. Now in recent years, a woman coach has played a big role in training many players – Suman Sharma,” says Biju George. 

Suman’s task, when she began in 2013-14, was to work on technique and other areas, such as building confidence level. “Physically, the girls would be strong. Many of them came from tribal areas or interiors, and their fitness levels were always good. So I would work on technique, how to communicate, how to go about cricket,” she says.

Suman (third from left) with Deepthi, Jipsha, Drishya
Suman (third from left) with Deepthi, Jipsha, Drishya

She has worked with Minnu, Sajana, and Asha. Of the three, Asha is the oldest player to make her debut in international cricket, at the age of 33. She was picked for the T20 series against Bangladesh in April (along with Sajana), and the One Day International series against South Africa this month. Asha made two memorable wicket hauls respectively for the WPL and the series against South Africa. In WPL, she created history by becoming the first Indian player to get five wickets in a match (between the RCB and the UP Warriorz). She repeated her wicket-taking streak in her first ODI, taking four wickets for 21 runs and limiting South Africa to half the score they were chasing.

Financially poor background of players

Asha could not speak to TNM as she is part of the India-South Africa test series that is still going on. She has earlier spoken about her humble background, struggling to get the kits or even the bus fare to go for training in her early years. Her father is an auto rickshaw driver, and she was often helped by her coach Aron, who would give her the bus fare or make her take an orange juice after practice, so she’d focus on her game. TC Mathew remembers how after Asha got an incentive for playing for the state, she told him she was going to purchase a new rickshaw for her father. 

Asha Shobana during an RCB match
Asha Shobana during an RCB match

“Women’s cricket has mostly been a game of the poor, while the more privileged students were focussed on Youth Festival competitions,” says Elsamma. Like Asha, Minnu and Sajana also struggled to make it to the team. 

Minnu, who comes from the Kurichiya Tribe, one of the Scheduled Tribes in Wayanad, grew up playing cricket in the paddy fields outside her home with the boys in the neighbourhood. She said in another interview that her parents had borrowed money to be able to send her to the academy, without letting her know. 

Najila CMC, a 20-year-old from Malappuram who was part of the under-19 World Cup says that her coaches, who were considerate of her circumstances, would let go of the fees. 

The remoteness of their villages also made it difficult for the women. Both of them, as girls, used to travel for hours just to reach the practice ground.

“I come from Tirur in Malappuram which has no practice facility, so I used to go to a camp in Perinthalmanna every day,” Najila says. 

Najila CMC
Najila CMCInstagram

Najila and Minnu were both picked up by the Wayanad Academy when they were 13 or 14, and they stayed there till they finished school, getting trained in the sport alongside their studies. But for Sajana it had all been athletics, until she discovered cricket as a 17-year-old. She went directly to the district team, and all three of them became all-rounders. 

Nazer Machan says there are many more talented girls, dropping the names of Drishya IV and Joshitha VJ among others. Many of them have taken up cricket full-time with no qualms about it.

“I realised that I could make cricket my career when we won the under-23 championship. After that, the KCA also began to take women’s cricket more seriously,” Sajana says.

KCA's reception for Asha and Sajana after WPL
KCA's reception for Asha and Sajana after WPL

Not just a man’s sport

It was not always an easy task for the KCA. Identifying talents from a young age was not enough; there was also the bigger task of convincing parents to send the girls for training. “Other sports are more common in Kerala, especially among girls. Coaches and physical education teachers at schools give importance to basketball or athletics, but not to cricket. Their presumption is that cricket is killing the other games,” TC Mathew says.

In a public event for television, when Minnu Mani sat to take questions from an audience, veteran actor Mallika Sukumaran asked her why, as a girl, she chose cricket, when the practice had always been for girls to choose volleyball or table tennis or other kinds of sports. Minnu simply said that she always loved cricket, and that’s the game she grew up playing. Up until a decade ago, women playing cricket were still uncommon enough that most tournaments — even the informal ones played between non-sporting organisations — did not include women. If a particular team could not get their playing 11, they’d rather sneak in men from outside than consider the women in their enterprises. 

“All that has changed in the last few years, perhaps coupled with the financial assurance also that the game gives,” says Keziah Sabin, who was a top-order batter of the under-19 Kerala team till last year. 

Keziah Sabin
Keziah Sabin

Financial aspect

Financial assurance was among the KCA’s efforts to convince families to send girls to play cricket. TC Mathew says that incentives were given to the girls chosen for the game, and their academics were also taken care of. “During their Class 10 and 12 exams, extra care would be provided for their education, including special tuition for the girls,” he says. 

Now, with the WPL and the lakhs of rupees that the players are auctioned for, parents are more willing to send their girls to train for the game. Asha Shobana was picked up by RCB for Rs 10 lakh, Sajana by MI for Rs 15 lakh, and Minnu by DC for a whopping Rs 30 lakh this year.

“The popularity of players like Sajana, Asha, and Minnu also draws more girls. After the two WPL seasons, more students are participating for selection,” Nazer Machan says.

But the journey is still not easy for there’d always be naysayers, just like there have always been when women take on a new field of work. It helps when the family is aware of or takes a keen interest in sports. Najila and Keziah’s families were into the game. Najila’s father is an athlete, while Keziah’s father used to be a cricket journalist, covering international cricket for years. “In my case, playing cricket was sort of an extension of Papa’s dream. He had wanted to play,” Keziah says.

For Najila, who is 20 and coming from an orthodox area, there are people who would remind her family it was time to get her married, instead of sending her off to play. Najila says she’d just ignore these remarks, and her father, to whom most of these remarks are addressed, would “nicely give it to them.”

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