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Women's Premier League: How Royal Challengers Bangalore flipped the script

Season 2 of the Women’s Premier League deepened the popularity of women’s cricket, even as RCB dominated

Royal Challengers Bangalore players celebrate winning the Women's Premier League.
Royal Challengers Bangalore players celebrate winning the Women's Premier League. (AFP)

Sport loves a redemption story. Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and team captain Smriti Mandhana scripted one on Sunday evening when they lifted the Women’s Premier League (WPL) 2024 title: from the most underwhelming team in 2023 to unlikely champions a year later. They didn’t have a crack squad like Delhi Capitals (DC) or the all-round might of Mumbai Indians (MI). But they found their heroes along the way; the right women for the right job to win the first piece of silverware for the RCB franchise.

“The only thing I want to say is how proud I am of the bunch,” said Mandhana, who was the glue that held together a talented and excitable bunch of players this season. “We've been through ups and downs, the way they stuck together and got us through the line was amazing to watch.”

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Though Mandhana only smiled beatifically; the rest of the squad exploded in emotion after Richa Ghosh hit the winning runs in the final against the Delhi Capitals, at the latter’s home ground—the Arun Jaitley Stadium in New Delhi—in front of a nearly 30,000-strong crowd. Australian star Ellyse Perry pulled the Orange Cap over her RCB cap. They hopped, skipped and jumped for joy, impromptu victory dances were started and abandoned, some, like Asha Sobhana, shed tears.

Smriti Mandhana and Ellyse Perry strategise during their Eliminator match against Mumbai Indians.
Smriti Mandhana and Ellyse Perry strategise during their Eliminator match against Mumbai Indians. (Women's Premier League (WPL) - X)

This was not the team that had started as favourites, nor the strongest, but they had ridden the rollercoaster, stared at a possibility of being sent out, again, before the playoffs, and fought their way through. But they had finished on an incredible high—beating 2023 champions Mumbai Indians in their final league game and then the eliminator, and then defeating 2023 finalists (and this year’s league toppers) Delhi Capitals by eight wickets in the final.

Two years old and the WPL is already tugging at heartstrings.

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This is mainly because the players are easy to root for. While they all have their stories of struggle, be it DC’s Shafali Verma starting out in cricket impersonating a boy, because there were no girls’ cricket academies in her hometown in Rohtak, Haryana; or the 33-year-old Asha toiling in first-class cricket for over a decade to finally step in the spotlight, they have a shared history of overcoming prejudices and doubts. Together, they have forged a product that is compelling in quality, competitiveness and drama.

The second season proved that the WPL has an identity, and life of its own, despite the overarching comparisons with the Indian Premier League (IPL). During the first WPL season, the BCCI had gone for the safe option and restricted the matches to Mumbai and Navi Mumbai, the unofficial home base of the Indian women’s cricket team. This season, as the caravan moved first to Bengaluru and then to New Delhi, the fans followed.

One of the biggest strengths of the women’s game is that it is a more even contest between the bat and ball. Since 2023 was the inaugural edition of the WPL, the BCCI had focused on the entertainment factor, and had opted for much shorter boundaries last year, as much as 42 meters in the beginning. But they were pulled back this year: according to ESPNcricinfo, the BCCI had set a range of 50-60m for the boundaries in New Delhi.

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Additionally, unlike the batter-friendly tracks in Mumbai, especially in the first half of last season, the pitches in Bengaluru and New Delhi had greater variety and rewarded good bowling, especially spin. While teams posted totals of 200 or above four times last season, the highest total in this year was 199-5 by the Gujarat Giants (GG).

Delhi Capitals was the most consistent team in WPL under the captaincy of Meg Lanning.
Delhi Capitals was the most consistent team in WPL under the captaincy of Meg Lanning. (PTI)

WPL 2024 had begun with Sajeevan Sajana hitting a last-ball six to guide Mumbai Indians to a four-wicket win over Delhi Capitals. The tournament ended with RCB’s spin trio of Shreyanka Patil, Asha and Sophie Molineux flooring the famed DC batting line-up. During the course of the tournament, we saw Asha become the first Indian to claim a five-wicket-haul in the WPL (5-22 vs UP Warriorz), Deepti Sharma the first Indian to capture a hat-trick in the tournament (4-19 vs Delhi Capitals) and South African pacer Shabnim Ismail breach the 130kmph barrier in women’s cricket with a delivery recorded at 132.1kmph against DC.

Even though Delhi was at the receiving end of some of the standout performances, they were the most consistent team in the league stage for the second year running. With Meg Lanning—a seven-time world champion with Australia (ODIs and T20 combined)— leading a team of proven match-winners, Delhi topped the five-team table with 12 points from eight matches.

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MI looked less menacing than last season, but still recorded the highest successful chase in the WPL. Chasing a target of 191 against GG, the Mumbai innings was powered by a tour de force performance by Harmanpreet Kaur. The India captain scored an unbeaten 95, at nearly two runs per ball, as MI scored over 90 runs in the last six over and closed out the match at 19.5 overs. In a repeat of last season, Mumbai finished second in the league stage.

But it was RCB that emerged as a challenger to the Delhi-Mumbai dominance. In 2023, RCB had gone into the tournament as one of the biggest brands in franchise cricket and Mandhana as the most expensive buy at 3.4 crore only to finish an underwhelming fourth. This season, they parked the excess baggage of expectations aside and set to work, with new coach Luke Williams at the helm. This time, Mandhana finished the tournament with 300 runs and among the top-5 highest scorers of the season.

“Last year taught us a lot of things,” Mandhana said after the final. “We spoke of what went wrong, what went right, both as player and captain. The management backed my ideas when I went to them after the tournament. They said this is your team, build it the way you want to.” International stars like Perry and Sophie Devine lent experience and quality to the team.

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Nor was the team management wasn’t afraid of testing out lesser-known players in tricky situations. One of their finds of the season was uncapped Indian leg-spinner Asha, who RCB had picked for 10 lakh at last year’s auction. Asha may have been new to the WPL stage, but she was no stranger to pressure situations on a cricket field. She had played for Railways for more than a decade and had later led Puducherry in domestic cricket. And in RCB’s first match of the season, with the team playing in front of a raucous home crowd, she claimed her fifer to hamstrung the UP Warriorz.

Royal Challengers Bangalore's Asha Sobhana.
Royal Challengers Bangalore's Asha Sobhana. (AFP)

In the eliminator against Mumbai, it was Patil, whose impressive show last season had earned her an India debut, who delivered the decisive blow. With only 135 to defend, she gave RCB the first breakthrough ( the wicket of Hayley Matthews) and then sent back Harmanpreet, looking dangerous on 33, in the 18th over. Even though they just needed 16 runs in the last two overs, Mumbai, with captain Harmanpreet gone, hit the panic button. After Molineux conceded only four runs in the 19th over, Mandhana decided to hand the final over to Asha and the leg-spinner from Kerala coolly went about her business, and restricted Mumbai to 130 for six. It was the lowest total a team had defended in the WPL.

Going into the final, RCB were the in-form team. But Indian batting prodigy Shafali Verma, with her idol Lanning at the other end, gave DC just the start they were looking for. Verma struck three sixes and two boundaries for a good-looking 44 that saw the home team accumulate 61 runs in the six overs of powerplay. Then came Molineux, who had been sidelined for more than a year due to an ACL injury before coming into this year’s WPL. In the space of four deliveries, she claimed the wickets of Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues and Alice Capsey to send DC’s batting into disarray. With Patil (4-12) and Asha (2-14) picking up the rest of the wickets, Delhi’s innings folded at 113.

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To make sure there were no more twists in the tale on a slow-turner, RCB batted cautiously and sensibly. While Mandhana and Devine provided a steady start, Perry took them over the line, like she had a number of times this season, with an unbeaten 35. Not only did RCB take the title, but Perry also finished as the season’s highest scorer with 347 runs and Patil (14 wickets), Molineux and Asha (13 wickets each) were the highest wicket-takers of WPL 2024. The comeback was complete.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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