Shubhda Bhosle Gaikwad is a realist. It’s a quality that helps her in the field. At 30, she is one of India’s youngest umpires, a rare woman umpire, and one who recently officiated at a one-off international tournament that featured the likes of England’s Kevin Pietersen and India’s Pathan brothers, Irfan and Yusuf.
Gaikwad has been on the pitch since she was 12, working her way up the ranks until she was representing Madhya Pradesh at the Under-19 level, until 2009. Cricket runs in her blood. Her uncle Shrikant Bhosle played for Madhya Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy; her father Ajit Bhosle played in the Cooch Behar Trophy and now coaches; her brother Jatin Bhosle represented Vidarbha in the Vijay Merchant Trophy and plays at the inter-collegiate level.
At 19, Gaikwad decided to take a somewhat different route. “Plenty of girls play cricket now. Only a few make it to the top,” she says. “And I love cricket so much that I just wanted to be out on the ground, it didn’t matter doing what. So I thought I’d give umpiring a shot.”
Since her early days of play, Gaikwad adds, she had a deep interest in the intricacies of cricket laws. She’d always been a bit in awe of the umpires too, silently altering fates with the raise of a finger.
She gave an umpiring exam and cleared it in her first attempt. She was 19 at the time, the youngest of three women to qualify for the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) Level 1 exam, which she cleared as well. Four years later, she officiated at her first match, a senior women’s tournament in Bhopal.
In the decade since, she has officiated at over 300 domestic matches. Her first international assignment was the Legends League Cricket 20-over men’s league held in Oman in January. She was part of an all-women team of match officials of four umpires and one match referee.
“I was personally congratulated by (South Africa’s) Jonty Rhodes, (the West Indies’s) Daren Sammy and (India’s) Mohammad Kaif at the end of the tournament, on a job well done,” Gaikwad says.
What does it take to be a good umpire? “One must have good decision-making skills, but also body language, confidence and concentration.”
What about doubt, or fear, that a call might turn out to be wrong, might be questioned? “Cricket is a game played in the mind as well as on the field, and the same is true for umpiring,” Gaikwad says. “I’ve always believed the most important ball is the next ball I try and forget about the previous ball, no matter what has happened. If a player can have an off day in the field, so can an umpire.” Having your decisions upheld, of course, is a triumphant feeling, she adds.
In one of the many gender biases that persist in sport, it’s still unusual to see women officiate at men’s matches. Cricket only got its first female umpire in a men’s first-class game in 2019; European football saw its first woman officiate at a men’s game that same year.
Gaikwad dreams of a day when this will be unremarkable. “A lot of girls tend to give up the sport after not making it beyond a certain level. I’d tell them that there are a lot of other avenues too within cricket that you can explore. Don’t just give up on the sport,” she says.
One thing that’s helped her stay the course is her family. Gaikwad, a mother of two, says she couldn’t have done it without her parents, husband and in-laws. She married Sujay Gaikwad, a scientific officer with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, in 2016, and transferred from the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association to the Mumbai Cricket Association, in order to continue umpiring.
“I officiated at matches until my fifth month of pregnancy and returned to umpiring when my son was only three months old. My daughter is currently 18 months old,” she says.
When not spending her days signaling fours, sixes and outs, Gaikwad — who has a Master’s degree in physical education and a PhD in sports psychology — tries to pay it forward, motivating other children to take up sports in her job as a sports officer with a government college in Thandla, in MP’s Jhabua district.
“I am a coach, manager and selector in these tribal areas. This year, under my tutelage, 16 of 50 students playing inter-collegiate games made the cut for different inter-district sports tournaments,” Gaikwad says.
As for her own ambitions, “I want to learn, practice and get more experience so that one day, I can be a part of the ICC (International Cricket Council) umpiring panel.”