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‘Serpent, guard thy tongue.’ Unfair to compare male, female athletes

The national women’s cricket team almost gave Pakistan the perfect Chaand Raat as they were zooming in on an opening game win against South Africa in the ongoing World Cup. Defending a lowly 206, Pakistan were down and out when openers Laura Wolvaardt and Lizelle Lee had put up a 113-run opening partnership. After captain fantastic Sana Mir trapped Lee leg before the wicket the Protean slump began, at one time leaving them at 177-7 needing another 30 off 30 deliveries with three wickets in hand. While South Africa squeezed home in the penultimate over, Pakistan got deserved plaudits for the fighting spirit that the girls displayed.

In the second match against England on the second day of Eid, Pakistan were overpowered by centuries from Heather Knight and Natalie Sciver, as the World Cup hosts piled on a mammoth 377. Pakistan eventually lost by 107 runs (D/L method) as the team managed 107/3 in 29.2 overs before rain washed off the remaining play. Pakistan now face archrivals India on Sunday in a crucial encounter.

What is heartwarming to see is that the Women’s World Cup is getting coverage in the media, with many celebrities backing the national side. Former greats Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis posted video messages for the team ahead of the World Cup, with Champions Trophy winning captain Sarfraz Ahmed doing the same as well.

This mass support would encourage young girls to take up the sport and eventually help further improve the national cricket side, that has been making strides recently. Let’s not forget that for Pakistani female athletes the on-field challenges pale in front of the off-field menaces.

In the early part of the previous decade Pakistan was still debating whether women playing sports is religious permitted or not – a deliberation still carried out in many parts of the country. This has meant that anything from their practice attire to the national political alliances have impacted the women’s team, even before the first ball is bowled in any given tournament that they participate in.

This is why not only is it important for the nation to get behind the girls and wholeheartedly support the team whenever they are participating in the international tournament, it is also crucial that we cut out the needless comparisons with the men’s team.

It is not uncommon for those following the women’s cricket side to mull where the female athletes would rank if they were to take on a male side.

Club cricket? Under 17? Under 15? It is irrelevant and unfair.

Unlike most other fields in life where women have competed with men, and outdone them as well, comparing male and female athletes is simply unjust. Even if one ignored the mammoth societal hurdles that women in our neck of the woods would face, there is no bigger disparity than simple biology.

While Pakistan were taking on England in the Women’s World Cup, former tennis World No 1 and seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe, who is now a leading analyst and commentator, created quite a stir after he claimed that Serena Williams would rank somewhere around 700 in the world if she competed with men.

The backlash against McEnroe was perhaps overstretched considering the NPR interviewer had pressed the American to justify why he qualified Williams as the ‘greatest female tennis player’ of all time and not just the greatest player. And the number 700 might be an exaggeration as well.

But the episode, coupled with the ongoing cricket world cup, has only underscored the futility of comparing male and female sportspersons. Because the male and female editions of any game are like two different sports.

Would we ask where Roger Federer would rank as a golfer, or if the Golden State Warriors would be able to qualify for next year’s FIFA World Cup? Or even in female sports, would we question where Serena Williams would rank as a badminton player or an F1 driver?

Sure, when certain individuals play the same sport the comparison might spring up, but it is important for modern day analysts – and the journalists posing certain questions – to carefully phrase them. It is best if female athletes are compared to other women of the same sport and likewise for men.

Think of a young tennis player listening to McEnroe’s comments, wondering: hey, even if I become as good as Serena I won’t even be among the top 700 athletes in the world. Or think of an aspiring cricketer in Chaghi who wants to win the Women’s World Cup for Pakistan, but is discouraged by being told that the female athletes won’t even be able to beat male club sides.

That’s how much damage these pointless comparisons can cause, especially in our part of the world, where something as basic as gender equality is still a revolutionary idea, facing a myriad of inertial forces.

Sardar, Khursheed. ‘Serpent, guard thy tongue.’ Unfair to compare male, female athletes. Pakistan Today, June 30, 2017.

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