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What the Women's Premier League means for women's cricket in India

The inaugural Women’s Premier League starts this Saturday. Will it bring about a sea change in the fortunes of India’s women cricketers?

Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur are set to be the stars of the first ever season of the Women's Premier League.
Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur are set to be the stars of the first ever season of the Women's Premier League. (PTI)

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Fifteen years after the game-changing men’s Indian Premier League was launched, it is time for women’s cricket to take centre stage. The long-awaited Women’s Premier League, a T20 franchise-based league, will finally get underway on 4 March at Navi Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium.

“You have to wait for the good things in life,” Poonam Yadav, who has represented India at multiple World Cups, tells Lounge in a virtual interview. “It is a very big step for women’s cricket in India. Earlier, women’s players had to depend on our jobs, like our generation of players would depend on (public sector) jobs. But now we have a platform where they don’t have to think of that. They can dream big.”

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Yadav, the 31-year-old leg-break bowler, has been picked by the Delhi Capitals for the inaugural edition of the WPL. Delhi, along with Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore, own teams in the IPL as well. Gujarat Giants and UP Warriorz complete the roster for the five-team League, which will take place in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai from 4-26 March.

The League is a big leap ahead for women’ cricket in India, which has been on the upswing for the past decade. Gone are the days when cricket was considered a gentleman’s sport. “If you look at the state I come from, Uttar Pradesh, they don’t like girls playing sport,” recalls Yadav. “When I started playing, my own brother used to tell me, don’t play cricket. I understand his point of view, he was looking out for me. It wasn’t his fault. This is the society we have created.

“One of my friends told my mother not to send me since I was the only girl playing cricket. I had to stop playing gully cricket because of that. A lot of other would jest that what will I do in cricket, at the most play for the state team, or sit on the bench and carry drinks. When I was selected in the India team, they admitted they were wrong. Mujhe un ladkon ko dikhana tha ki ladkiyan bhi khel sakti hai. (I had to show the boys that girls can also play),” she says.

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Teenage cricketer Sonam Yadav at a net practice.
Teenage cricketer Sonam Yadav at a net practice. (AFP)

It’s a battle women cricketers in India have fought for a long time. For decades, they have languished in the shadows of the behemoth that is the Indian men’s cricket team. But the generation, spearheaded by Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, refused to wilt by the sidelines. Thirty-two years after the Women’s Cricket Association of India was formed, India reached the final of the World Cup for the very first time in 2005.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) took over the governance of women’s cricket in 2006. And though the domestic structure in the country is still not very well fleshed out, international opportunities and exposure, especially in limited overs formats, have increased exponentially since then. The penny-drop moment came in 2017, when India made it to the final of the 50-over World Cup. India also reached the final of the T20 World Cup in 2020 and won a silver medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, where women’s cricket made its debut. In January this year, India won the inaugural U-19 women’s cricket World Cup.

With women’s cricket building undeniable momentum in the country, the BCCI, by far the richest cricket board in the world, took the first step towards parity last year. In October, the board announced that the Indian men and women’s cricketers would get the same match fee. The WPL is another confirmation of the money-spinning potential of women’s cricket in the country.

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deepti Sharma will be playing for UP Warriorz.
deepti Sharma will be playing for UP Warriorz. (AP)

Even though women’s cricket leagues in England and Australia pre-date the Indian counterpart, the WPL has already been dubbed as the second richest cricket league in the world by BCCI secretary Jay Shah. In the opening season itself, the five WPL franchises were sold for 4,669.99 crore. Viacom18 won the media rights for a massive 951 crore for a period of five years. At the player auction, the five franchises, with a purse of 12 crore each, signed on 87 players, including 30 foreign players, and spent a total of 59.5 crore. India’s star batter Smriti Mandhana, signed by Royal Challengers Bangalore for a whopping 3.4 crore, became the most expensive player of the League.

“Women’s cricket has transformed since the 2017 World Cup,” Indian legend Jhulan Goswami, who is the mentor of the Mumbai Indians, says. “People have started following the game. The brand of cricket that the Indian team is currently playing, fans believe in them, believe that they can win big tournaments.

“WPL is going to be a game changer. The facilities, lessons, support these women get are going to bring about a lot of change. Sharing the dressing room with quality cricketers, will create a lot of value for Indian players. It will help bridge the gap between international and domestic cricket. We have seen the countries that have a good domestic set up, grow much faster.”

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The payday remains considerably low for domestic cricketers even now. According to a recent report in The Indian Express, players earn 20,000 for a one-day game while those on the bench earn 10,000 per day. For the T20 games, the match fee is 10,000 for players and 5,000 for the reserves. A women’s cricketer playing a full schedule in a domestic season, earns about 2,40,000 per annum. At the player auction, the least an uncapped India player earned was 10 lakh. Out of 16 players from India’s U-19 World Cup winning squad, nine have been picked by the WPL franchises.

“It’s going to change people’s lives. We have seen that in the men’s IPL,” Australian great Lisa Sthalekar, who will mentor the UP Warriorz team, told ESPNcricinfo.

Not just money, the WPL promises a wealth of experience as well. “We wanted to have a Premier League, or any kind of good tournament which can help domestic cricketers,” says Yadav. “Those players who are sitting on the bench, waiting for their opportunity, will get a chance now. We used to have the Women’s Challenge event, which comprised only of three teams. Which means we played only two games. It is not enough time to showcase one’s talent. Here we get a chance to play a lot of matches. If you play back-to-back matches, you can gain momentum and perform well. The generation that is coming up, they have a bright future now.”

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The WPL Franchises.
The WPL Franchises.

Yadav, who also played in Australia’s marquee Women’s Big Bash League for Brisbane Heat, has seen first-hand how the exchange of ideas with players from other countries aids development. Not just established India cricketers, but budding players too will get a chance to play alongside some of the best in the business; and learn from close quarters what makes them tick.

“Apart from individuals, and their worlds changing, and maybe flipping on its head straightaway as soon as games are played and they perform, I think it’s going to take the game to another level,” added Sthalekar.

“There have been times that India, in crucial matches, whether it be a World Cup final or gold medal match at the CWG, they are just missing that one little ingredient. I think this women’s IPL, and exposing more Indian domestic cricketers to high pressure games, TV coverage, audience, will allow them, and enable them to unlock that two to three per cent they are missing in those clutch moments. There is a fear from a lot of players that once the women’s IPL starts that India are going to dominate world cricket.” With the WPL, Indian women’s cricket stands on the cusp of another breakthrough.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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