By Tarika Khattar
I’m not one to question John Arlott, but the gods are changing.
May 27, 2013. Atlanta, Georgia. 12.17am. Stafanie Taylor leads us off the highway, behind a strip mall and into the Jamaica Jamaica Luxe restaurant/convenient store. Grocery racks packed with plantain chips and sweet bread to one side, three retro diner-style red leather booths to the other. A crooked, signed picture of Usain Bolt hangs above, yellow Soul headphones and all. Some reggae croaks out of an old radio in the kitchen. The store is empty save for a lone man behind the counter. Above him, framed and carefully ordered are pictures of Obama, MLK, Malcolm X, Gandhi and Bob Marley.
A light nod as the eight of us trudge in. We order all three items on the menu— oxtail, goat curry and jerk chicken. They all come with beans and rice. I fall into one of the booths, cramping, hungry and oddly at home.
An unexpected email one March morning from Nadia Gruny, captain of the Atlantis Cricket Club NY women’s team and US national player had rather miraculously brought me to the Atlanta Women’s T20 Tournament. I met them all for the first time yesterday. Shy and childishly nervous, I stood in the corner of manager John Aaron’s room as he handed the kits out, watching in awe as Stafanie Taylor rummaged through the bag for size ‘small’ pants, failing to find them as I clutched the only pair. Then suddenly a leather ball came hurling at me. Panicking, I grabbed it inches from the mirror to my left and they all burst into laughter. Fast bowler Catherine “Joy” Jones winked: “Just to see if you can catch!” And so the ice broke.
In the booth in front of me sits Joan Alexander-Serrano, 52 and radiant, chatting animatedly over some jerk chicken. Aged 16, she arrived in Indira’s India with the West Indies Women’s XI.
“I got hit in India, you know.”
“Like, with a bouncer?” I ask wide-eyed.
“If only,” she smiles recalling an afternoon shopping in a market when she felt a hard punch on her back. She spun around, fist-raised, ready to face her attacker.
“It was a cow!” she laughs. There were so many stories. So much knowledge, so much laughter, so much love for the game.
I opened the batting with Joan just a few hours ago versus the Cayman Islands XI in our second game of the day. It was my first time batting and she could sense my nerves. “You can do this, hun.” She punched my glove. I smiled reassuringly but my insides were melting away. Stafanie gave me some quick throwdowns. “Front foot out. It won’t bounce on the mat. Play straight, always straight. Drive.” Drive, drive, drive on repeat as I took guard. Here it comes. First ball in my first real match. Wide.
Stafanie was acting coach for these games. The organisers felt it would only be fair if she played one game so we were saving her for the final. She didn’t complain. She was just there for the cricket. I could see it in her constant fidgeting with the ball, in being first up to give throwdowns to the next bat and her insistence on acting as twelfth man. She sat at the boundary, water bottles ready in one hand, running up every couple of overs with a drink and a quick observation. Move third man to gully. Bring midwicket in. Play straight. It’s too close to cut. Drive.
There was no pretence of an aura, no air, no flaunting of what was clearly a remarkable knowledge and understanding of the game. Would her male counterparts do the same? Would they just show up to play for a club side in America for no reason other than the fact that they’ve been asked to come play cricket? No contracts, no commercialisation, just cricket.
The fact that the West Indies Cricket Board agreed to let her play, sending her as an ambassador for women’s cricket, points to the steps being taken by various boards like Cricket Australia and the England and Wales Cricket Board to develop the women’s game. Many members of Atlantis like Nadia, Joan and Sara Farooq played for the US in the World Cup qualifiers and experienced cricket at the highest level. But for someone like me, this was a rare opportunity to play with the likes of Taylor. And I was only to truly appreciate that the following morning.
May 27, 2013. 3:04pm. Forest Park, Georgia. There’s no shade so we build our pavilion of deckchairs in the trees. The spectators, mostly from the Caribbean, have flocked to the ground in large numbers knowing Staf is going to play.Dozing in deckchair’s gentle curve, through half-closed eyes [they] watched the cricket. The Lady Eagles post a challenging 123 against our rather strong bowling line-up. Too many extras but now it’s done. Drive, drive, drive.
Two overs in, a harsh runout brings opener Neha Anand back to the shade of our forest pavilion and Joan joins Nadia at the crease. The spectators ease out of their slumbers. The deckchairs sag a little less. Bums are adjusted. Sun hats perch higher. Surely she’ll come in next.
Joan parts the leaves, kicks a branch and joins us. There is a fleeting, involuntary pause, hardly noticeable in the chatter that accompanies a departed batsman. Yet here it is, floating between the trees. There’s no intake of breath, no dramatic applause. Just that pause as we peer through the leaves to watch as Stafanie Taylor takes the field.
Some marvellous shots leave her blade this afternoon. Deckchairs empty, hoots of “You go, girl” echo. Down on one knee. Arms swing back. A whirling wooden blur that materialises into a bat above her left shoulder. Beyond the scorebox, through the trees. Straight drives. Lofted drives. Drives through the covers. 64 off 36 deliveries. Elegant brutality. There’s no other way to describe it.
The world press is beginning to take note of women’s cricket as players such as Ellyse Perry shape the game’s evolution. © Getty Images
Game over. 125 for two in just 14.1 overs. Atlantis retains the trophy. Players and spectators flock to her with iPhones and cameras. The photo session goes on for an hour with her still padded up. As I watch her, inevitably tired and thirsty but happily obliging, it strikes me that she is my age. She’s 23 years younger than Lara, 11 years younger than Gayle; she’s even younger than Kohli. In fact, she just became legal.
A few weeks ago, Raf Nicholson wrote an important piece on the need for girls to recognise women cricketers as role models. It’s certainly true that instead of Mithali Raj my idol has been Sachin Tendulkar. Yet here stands Stafanie Taylor, a model of humility, composure and self-belief. Who wouldn’t aspire to that?
Alan Gibson, translating Horace in a wonderful article on the history of English cricket, wrote: “There were great men before Agamemnon, but the press hadn’t got round to it.” The press is awakening now. The likes of Taylor and Perry and Raj are shaping an evolving game. Women’s cricket is growing. The world has started watching. And slowly but inevitably the gods too are changing.
As we left Jamaica Jamaica Luxe that night, they asked if it’s true I’ll be writing an article on the tournament. Joan gave a big “whoop” and Sara said I better copy the scorecards. Then, Joy armed not with a ball but a question this time, cornered me. “How will you describe us? If you had one word to describe us, what would it be?”
Two days is not an awful lot of time to summarily judge 11 strangers. Yet sometimes it takes just minutes for the truest and most powerful impressions to be made. It rolled off my tongue so easily that I only realised later how cheesy it must have sounded.
Fierce midday sun upon the ground;
Through heat haze came the hollow sound
Of wary bat on ball, to pound
The devil out of it, quell its bound.