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Women's Premier League: The new season promises to be bigger and better

The first season of the WPL proved that women’s cricket had arrived in India. The second season could be bigger and better

Mumbai Indians celebrates winning the Women's Premier League in 2023.(Getty Images)

By Deepti Patwardhan

LAST PUBLISHED 21.02.2024  |  07:00 AM IST

It wasn’t the blue jersey Harmanpreet Kaur would have envisioned lifting a trophy in, but the India captain conceded it felt “like a dream". “I think not only for me but for everyone here, even for the crowd. It was a great experience for all of us, we were waiting for this moment for so many years," she said. Yes, Kaur was speaking as the captain of champions Mumbai Indians in the inaugural edition of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) in 2023. But beyond that, she recognised what that day, that moment, meant for women’s cricket.

An Indian Premier League-style tournament for women that had been just a pipedream a few years ago, was up and running. Over three weeks of spectacular action, the players overcame decades of neglect and doubt by delivering not just a commercially viable, but an exciting tournament. In doing so, women cricketers ensured that WPL wasn’t going to be a one-hit wonder.

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The much-anticipated Season 2 of the WPL will take place from 23 February to 17 March 17 with last year’s finalists Mumbai Indians and Delhi Capitals opening the proceedings. Already, some steps are being taken to expand its footprint. The first edition of the tournament was held in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai, the unofficial home of Indian women’s cricket team. In the last two years, India has played all of its international matches at the two centres. But this season of WPL will be held in Bengaluru and New Delhi. New venues, new fans.

“I think the scale of cricket in India is magnificent," says Luke Williams, the head coach of the Royal Challengers Bangalore. A former cricketer, Williams has coached champion teams in Women’s Big Bash League in Australia and the Hundred Women’s Competition in England—the two women’s franchise tournaments established before WPL—and has seen first-hand the impact these competitions have had on the sport.

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“Everyone followed WPL, there was so much interest from the fans, really competitive games. We have seen already, with the domestic (T20) competitions, the ability for young boys and young girls to see their heroes out there playing and to be able to see the pathway. I have no doubt that Indian youngsters will see the opportunities that lie in cricket."

Smriti Mandhana in action for India. (Getty Images)

Million-dollar dreams: The nerve-centre of the sport, India is where cricket’s million-dollar dreams are born. In the opening season itself, the WPL set a new benchmark in women’s cricket as three players were signed on for over 3 crore each: Smriti Mandhana to RCB for 3.4 crore, Ashleigh Gardner to Gujarat Giants for 3.2 crore, and Natalie Sciver-Brunt to Mumbai Indians for 3.2 crore. All three have been retained by their respective franchises for this season.

At the WPL 2024’s mini-auction, the big headliners were Kashvee Gautam and Vrinda Dinesh, two uncapped players who became millionaires overnight. While Gautam became the joint most-expensive buy of the auction at 2 crore by Gujarat Giants, top-order batter Dinesh was signed on by UP Warriorz for 1.3 crore. However, Gautam was forced out of the tournament with injury just four days ahead of the opening match.

“It's a tournament we were all crying out for," England international Kate Cross said in a Sky Sports interview earlier this year. “We've seen what it has done in the men's game, with the IPL—it's just changed T20 cricket and what franchise cricket looks like. Money in cricket as well, obviously it is one of the most lucrative tournaments. In The Hundred, the top bracket for female players is about £31,000 pounds (approximately 32 lakh), so the WPL has completely blown that out of the water. That kind of money is only going to push the game forward."

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The WPL certainly makes for a hefty pay day. But beyond that, it also gives players an ideal platform to showcase their craft and test their mettle under pressure. It is their three-week window into the big world of international cricket. Since women’s domestic cricket in India is not as well-structured as the men’s, the WPL can function as the much-needed bridge between the national and international cricket.

Women's Premier League biggest buys this season.

The younger Indian players got a taste of playing in front of packed stadiums—while the average attendance during league games ranged from 9000 to 13,000, the final at the Brabourne Stadium saw a capacity crowd of 30,000—and on primetime TV.

Some of the Indian players grabbed the opportunity presented during last year’s WPL. Two of them, Shreyanka Patil and Saika Ishaque were also handed India debuts on the back of their performances in the League. While Patil’s sense of adventure with the bat and ball stood out, Ishaque emerged as the joint second-highest wicket-taker of the tournament with 15 wickets.

“Tournament like WPL are steps towards what you will be facing in international cricket, just a small example of it," says former India captain Anjum Chopra, who has seen Indian women’s cricket rise from obscurity. “This can be a platform from where players can be identified and stepped up towards international cricket. It is more of an experience or exposure for players, to be aware of what is expected of them, where is it that they see themselves fitting into the Indian squad. If even one or two players from the tournament go and serve the national side, the job’s done."

Settling in

Viewed more as a pilot project by the BCCI, WPL was rushed out last year. But with the auctions taking place almost three months before the start of the upcoming season, teams have had more time to settle in and assess their competition this time around.

“Last year, when we joined the team two days before the tournament, we didn't know about 90 per cent of the players," RCB captain Smriti Mandhana said on JioCinema, the official broadcasters of WPL. “This year, it was important to know their strengths and weaknesses so that we could play better. The WPL is a short tournament, and it's difficult to change things when it's on."

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One of the most unique things about franchise cricket is that it brings players, and support staff, from different countries and backgrounds together for a common goal. The challenge is getting them to click together as a team.

Despite having one of the strongest squads on paper, RCB had finished fourth in the five-team league table in 2023. Gujarat Giants was placed last. Mumbai Indians and Delhi Capitals were the top two teams after the League stage and went on to play the final. The Harmanpreet-led Mumbai Indians defeated Delhi by seven wickets to win the title.

Cricketers Harmanpreet Kaur and Yastika Bhatia. (PTI)

RCB have fortified the squad by bringing in bowling all-rounders Georgia Wareham, Sophie Molineux and Nadine de Klerk, while Gujarat, who suffered injury setbacks, now have a relatively inexperienced line-up. UP Warriorz, who finished third last year, have a stacked top-order, including the likes of Alyssa Healy and Chamari Athapaththu and Delhi a riches of all-rounders. As defending champions, MI, who have retained the core of the winning squad, are once again the team to watch out for.

“We hope to give all the players clear roles so that they can go out there and perform," said Harmanpreet at a press conference in Mumbai last week. “When you set a standard for yourself, it increases expectations. But of course, sometimes things are not always under your control, you can only go and do best for the team. Like last year, we want to go out there are enjoy ourselves." While Season 1 was about solidarity and making a splash, the competition is only going to heat up here on.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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