Commentating for a cause
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
Glued to TVs, millions of cricket fans would have seen a strange sight at the conclusion of every match of the Asia Cup cricket tournament during the last few weeks. Little girls proudly bearing the cheques to be handed over to the winning team, not only smiling into the cameras but also carrying out a crusade with a difference.

Joining up with famous cricketing figures such as Ravi Shastri, the crusade is sans guns and bombs, only wielding the willow. As nail-biting tension mounts and cricket crazy South Asia awaits the finale of the Asia Cup today, Ravi Shastri has already picked the winner.

”It is the cause of education for girls,” says Shastri, a former Indian cricketing hero and now a TV commentator, apologizing for the “frog” in his throat due to jumping out of his chair and shouting into the mike the previous day. He was speaking at a simple ceremony and photo exhibition at the Gallery Café down Alfred House Gardens last Wednesday.

Role models in the form of cricketers and commentators, including Shastri, household faces and names in the poshest of homes and humblest of huts across cricket-crazy South Asia have been mobilized by UNICEF, through the Asian Cricket Council (ACC), to get girl-children to school.

Shastri who has been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund promoting polio immunization for more than a decade calls his involvement both “exhilarating” and “humbling”.

“I realize how lucky I am to be where I am,” he says calling sports a “heck of a teacher” for lessons on responsibility, tolerance and participation. “Sports will give all these and more to girls who are generally not brought into the forefront.”

The year's tie-up - which both organisations hope to prolong - between UNICEF and ACC focuses on a campaign called 'Fair Play for Girls' - a campaign that pushes for education for every child.

A majority of South Asian countries, including India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan, have a sad record of the treatment meted out to the girl-child. The indictment is clear and the figures say it all. South Asia as a region has the largest number of women in the world who cannot read or write. One-quarter of all the children in the world live in South Asia but 46 million primary school-age children in this region are out of school. Girls comprise more than half this number.

Thirty-five percent of primary school-age girls are not enrolled as against only 20% of boys. And the reasons why sound all too familiar - discrimination, poverty, schools being too far away, unfriendly schools where girls do not even have basic facilities like a toilet to call their own, early marriage and weak legal frameworks.

Recognizing that educating girls is the key to breaking the cycle of inter-generational poverty, 'Fair Play for Girls' is attempting to level the educational and also the playing field for girls.

While commenting on the scores and a six or a four here and there during Asia Cup matches, Shastri and company will also drum the importance of sending girls to school and keeping them there. Through the ACC, which represents 20 cricket boards in Asia, these commentators will also zero-in on the need to bring more and more girls into organized games and sports throughout Asia.

UNICEF Programme Coordinator Dr. Yazmin Haque drew seven parallels between the game of cricket and the 'Fair Play' campaign. Both are target-driven, have a focus, healthy competition and with good performance yield bonus points like overall improvement in lifestyles with regard to education, she said adding that the others were strategy, partnerships and the essential will, commitment and passion.

Be it a few thousand children in Sri Lanka or millions in other parts of South Asia or the world, we need to get them to their books and pencils was her message.

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