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How the Women's Premier League captured the imagination of the cricket world

The inaugural Women's Premier League was an important milestone for women's cricket in India

Mumbai Indians skipper Harmanpreet Kaur along with teammates celebrate with the Womens Premier League 2023 trophy.
Mumbai Indians skipper Harmanpreet Kaur along with teammates celebrate with the Womens Premier League 2023 trophy. (ANI)

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The Brabourne Stadium, dressed in fifty shades of blue, burst into celebration as Natalie Sciver-Brunt scooped the ball over to the fine-leg boundary for a four. It was an audacious end to what had been an audacious tournament. Women’s cricket, given the glamorous franchise league platform in India for the very first time, proved it could script some of the best primetime entertainment.

For 22 days, the inaugural Women’s Premier League captured the imagination of cricket fans around the world. It wasn’t the first women’s T20 League by any measure. But no other country stages, connects with or consumes cricket quite like India, the sport’s spiritual and financial capital. Almost every match was played in front of capacity crowds. And the players, some of the best in the business in India and abroad, absorbed the pressure, thrived under the spotlight.

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Launched 15 years after the men’s Indian Premier League came into being, the WPL was long overdue. And the players more than ready. Big runs, power hits, crafty bowling, incredible athletic fielding a famous hat-trick, the women’s League had it all.

“It feels like a dream, I think not only for me but for everyone here, even for the crowd,” said India and Mumbai Indians captain Harmanpreet Kaur after the final on Sunday. “It was a great experience for all of us, we were waiting for this moment for so many years.”

The tournament had begun and ended with a convincing win for the Mumbai franchise. While Mumbai scored a massive 143-run win in the WPL opener against the Gujarat Giants, they ended it be beating Delhi Capitals by seven wickets in the final on Sunday, with Sciver-Brunt applying the finishing touches.

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Harmanpreet Kaur in action.
Harmanpreet Kaur in action. (REUTERS)

It was a personal victory for Kaur, who as the India captain, has struggled in the final stages of the competition. She was part of the Indian team that finished runners up at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the Women’s T20 World Cup in 2020 and lost in the semi-final of the 2023 Women’s T20 World Cup just last month.

“I have been waiting a long time and today I know what it feels like to be winning,” the 34-year-old Kaur said.

New lease of life

After all, that was what the WPL was meant to do for the Indian players. Equip them with new experiences, help them overcome old demons. It has the potential for being an ideal breeding ground for youngsters, a finishing school and to study the craft from the best in the business. As expected, it was international stars like Meg Lanning (most runs, 345), Sciver-Brunt, Hayley Matthews (most wickets, 16) and Marizanne Kapp who took the lead in the first edition of the WPL.

While some of the younger Indian players like Yastika Bhatia, Parshavi Chopra also made the most of the opportunity, the WPL proved to be a new lease of life for others. Particularly for Mumbai Indians bowler Saika Ishaque and the experienced Shikha Pandey.

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The 27-year-old Ishaque almost quit the game a few years ago years ago as she couldn’t find a place in the Bengal team. Cricket wasn’t just her passion, but also her livelihood. She was born in a poor neighbourhood in Kolkata and her mother worked as domestic help. But the left-arm spinner, tipped for big things, held a promise for a better life.

That dream was derailed when she underwent a career-threatening surgery in 2018. Though Ishaque returned to the game after rehab she didn’t find a place in the Bengal state team for three years. During the pandemic, with financial issues stacking up, she thought of quitting the sport for good. But her mentor and former India cricketer Mithu Mukherjee helped her stay in the game.

Saika Ishaque celebrates celebrates taking a wicket against the UP Warriorz
Saika Ishaque celebrates celebrates taking a wicket against the UP Warriorz (Women's Premier League (WPL) Twi)

Ishaque wasn’t one of the star-signing for Mumbai Indians at this year’s WPL auction. She was signed on for a modest 10 lakh, the base price for uncapped players, but the left-arm spinner has proved her worth in the line-up. Playing against some of the biggest batters in the game, Ishque returned with a haul of 15 wickets, which second-best in the League. Her scalps included Lanning, Sophie Devine, Alyssa Healy and Tahlia McGrath.

India player Pandey, who had found herself in a “dark place” early last year, also staged a comeback during the WPL. A veteran of the sport, Pandey suffered a blow when she was dropped from the 2022 ODI World Cup in New Zealand.

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“I played the whole (ICC ODI Championship) cycle from 2017 to 2021, did the hard work and then... I felt really hard done by not being selected, it almost broke me,” Pandey told in an interview in January 2023. “I remember the first 10 days I just wanted to vanish. I thought maybe I should walk away, leave the sport, probably I was just not good enough.”

But the 33-year-old shone on the WPL stage. She was the most successful bowler for the Delhi franchise with 10 wickets. Pandey also proved handy with the bat, especially in the final, as she and Radha Yadav ensured a feisty end to the Delhi innings. After their team was reduced to 79-9, Pandey and Yadav piled on 52 runs in the last four overs to give Delhi total some heft.

Radha Yadav and Shikha Pandey of Delhi Capitals.
Radha Yadav and Shikha Pandey of Delhi Capitals. (ANI)

Best in the League

The WPL final saw the two best, and most consistent teams, in the League face off. Mumbai and Delhi, playing in the first two days of the tournament, had set the tone for a belter as they posted more than 200 runs to set up big wins. While Mumbai scored 207 for five before beating Gujarat Giants by 143 runs in the WPL opener, Delhi scored 223 for two and recorded a 60-run win over Royal Challengers Bangalore.

The big scores brought attention to the fact that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had ordered that the boundary limit be set at a maximum of 60 metres, five metres lesser than last month's T20 World Cup. But there were times where the rope was brought in as close as 42-44 meters. It remains a prickly, somewhat patronising, issue for a League set out to present women with equal opportunities.

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As the tournament progressed and the pitches tired out, the batters influence waned. But Delhi and Mumbai, both dressed in blue, maintained their grip on the competition, finishing No. 1 and 2 respectively in the League stage.

After winning their first five matches of the tournament, Mumbai had slumped in the next two, which meant they had to play a knockout match against the UP Warriorz before the final. The highlight of the home team’s 72-run win over the Warriorz was Issy Wong’s hat-trick. The 20-year-old England pacer warmed up to the task by taking the wicket of Kiran Navgire. She then bowled Simran Shaikh and Sohpie Ecclestone off consecutive balls to send the crowd at the DY Patil Stadium in a frenzy.

“I have never experienced anything like that in my life, the ground just erupted,” former England player and Mumbai Indians coach Charlotte Edwards said. This was the might of the WPL, at full throttle.

Mumbai and Wong rode the momentum into the final. This time, it was Wong’s full-tosses that did the damage. She dismantled the Delhi top order, taking the first three wickets, and sending them on the backfoot. Some late-hitting saw Delhi put on a competitive score of 131 for nine. But with Sciver-Brunt taking on the wheel, with a well-paced unbeaten 60, Mumbai never looked in trouble.

The inaugural WPL dissolved in the images of Mumbai lifting the glittering trophy. And with a promise of better, bigger future.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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