Sporting Life

Little girls need their own female heroes

England international wicket-keeper Sarah Taylor, 26, is the first woman to play men's grade cricket in Australia.
England international wicket-keeper Sarah Taylor, 26, is the first woman to play men's grade cricket in Australia.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

My godchild is five years old, routinely scrapes her knees, is unafraid of life and can recite the names of Indian wrestlers and boxers and badminton players.

All women.

Billie Jean King would love her. The grandest crusader for equality in women's sport was blunt to CNN the other day when asked where women were, on the court and off, in sport and out of it.

"So far to go," she replied, "not even close."

My godchild's parents are not ardent athletes but sporting missionaries. They want their daughter to relish sport, to ride cycles, get muddy, climb jungle gyms, be confident, fail, fall, pick herself up. They see a value in the sweaty upbringing and as my godchild's mother recently wrote in a stirring essay:

"Playing any sport will make your girls healthier, stronger and more confident. It teaches team work, discipline and the joy of getting dirty. It's an early lesson in respecting your body. It makes you hungry and dissolves any teenage angst."

So if you have a daughter please take her, and not just your son, to the WTA Finals next week. Kids can't choose their heroes till someone does the introductions. Toughness anyway is best witnessed not on TV but from phlegm-spitting distance. No doubt every athlete, irrespective of gender, wears hardship, but men don't have to confront patriarchy. No one derisively says to them, "Oh, he throws like a boy".

Women, mostly, play sport with a finer grace than men, they trash talk with less frequency, they don't cheat as much, they're rarely as entitled. Maybe they are subconsciously aware of the opportunities they have got, the struggles they have made and the responsibilities they have to the audience before them.

No one tells men it's sinful to run in shorts, which is what Hassiba Boulmerka, 1992 Olympic champion in the 1,500m, was told. No one would dare ask Roger Federer to "twirl" in his outfit as Eugenie Bouchard was requested to do on court in Australia. No one would discuss Lionel Messi's body pre-match as crudely as Serena Williams' physique is.

Women have to compete in a stifling environment we don't always acknowledge. They have to still endure smirks about equal prize money which is demeaning. And yet here's what your daughter might find in their presence. Civility.

Women's sport is no convention of angels for they fume, whine and posture as you might expect from competitive athletes. But no version of Nick Kyrgios will be found here. Women, mostly, play sport with a finer grace than men, they trash talk with less frequency, they don't cheat as much, they're rarely as entitled. Maybe they are subconsciously aware of the opportunities they have got, the struggles they have made and the responsibilities they have to the audience before them.

Which is my godchild. And possibly your daughter. Who are lucky for before them stand a variety of role models: There are 17-year-old golf No. 1s like Lydia Ko and miraculous mothers who give birth one year and win world championship gold the next like Jessica Ennis-Hill. There are women who advise men like Amelie Mauresmo and those who order them around as chair umpire Eva Asderaki-Moore adeptly did in the men's US Open final.

And now there's Sarah Taylor.

She is 26, English and is playing first-grade cricket as a wicket-keeper in Australia. With men. Evidently Taylor doesn't know her place. Let us be grateful for that.

Women playing sport with men isn't always enthralling for sometimes, as with women golfers venturing onto the PGA Tour, it turns into a tiresome fashion. If you're working hard to have your own show, why be someone else's sideshow?

In some sports where muscle isn't the primary ingredient, gender can be somewhat irrelevant. Shooters once competed side by side and in equestrian events they still do. An Englishwoman, it is claimed, defeated a leading male jockey in 1805. Sitting side-saddle for all you know.

A woman as wicket-keeper in a men's game scarcely seems outlandish and it has no scent of a gimmick. Taylor told the Daily Mail that "one of the locals said he couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl behind the stumps" and that really is the point of the exercise. Skill not sex.

To play with men requires confidence, a trust in her skills and bravery. After all, Taylor may wish to play for herself yet she cannot escape the responsibility to her sisterhood. It is a burden no man wears. It is somewhat akin to King beating Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes in 1973: It was a moment which gave women self-esteem and offered men proof. Yes, these women can play.

Taylor may change a few minds. And chip away at a little history. And loosen the screws of another barrier. She is forging her own path and yet also clearing the way for those who may come after her.

Like my godchild. And your daughter.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2015, with the headline 'Little girls need their own female heroes'. Print Edition | Subscribe