New Delhi: When Jemimah Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana walked out to open the batting in the first ODI against South Africa at Lucknow’s Atal Bihar Vajpayee Ekana Cricket Stadium on 7 March, it was the Indian women’s cricket team’s first assignment since its defeat in the final of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia on 8 March 2020.
The last time the team played the ODI format was in November 2019, and between the lockdown and now, the cricketers had played at most three T20 matches against high-level competition — the Women’s T20 Challenge that runs alongside the Indian Premier League play-offs.
The team’s head coach and former opening batsman for the men’s team W.V. Raman also cited this gap as a major reason for his players lacking the intensity and match fitness needed to perform, as they went on to lose the ODI series 4-1 to South Africa.
Contrast that with the men’s team. Since the pandemic struck the world, the men have played a full-fledged IPL in the UAE between September and November, then travelled to Australia for a full tour, and are currently hosting England for another full tour.
So, why doesn’t the BCCI begin a women’s IPL? Why is it that even after 13 editions of the world’s premier T20 franchise cricket tournament, the BCCI is only testing waters for a women’s equivalent with a handful of matches every year?
These are fair questions that many, not least India’s former women cricketers, keep asking. Speaking to ThePrint, former India captain Shubhangi Kulkarni said she had been advocating for a women’s IPL for the last seven or eight years, pointing to the fact that the men’s team seems to be overflowing with IPL-bred talents who are ready to take on all comers in any format.
Rishabh Pant, Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel, Shreyas Iyer or Yuzvendra Chahal — all of them were exciting domestic players who found a big stage to perform on in the IPL, launching their careers towards the international game.
Even in the ongoing T20 series against England, five-time champions Mumbai Indians have given the national team Ishan Kishan and Suryakumar Yadav, who have both announced their arrival with impactful half-centuries.
Surely, there’s a need for an IPL-equivalent tournament in the women’s game in India, which would not only help the cricketers gain exposure and experience, but expand the talent pool, Kulkarni said.
“I have been saying for the last 7-8 years — we need a women’s IPL. The league also gives you a larger pool of players to choose from for the national team, simply because players are getting that level of exposure,” she said.
“Look at what the men’s IPL has done for the Indian team… It has given it so many players, and the confidence with which they’re coming out is because they’re getting to play in front of huge crowds in the IPL which trains them for the national team. Plus, you’re rubbing shoulders with international players in the dressing room. You learn so much. The same can happen for women’s cricket,” the former India captain added.
The reason, Kulkarni believes, is that there’s a belief in the BCCI that there are not enough talented players for a full-length IPL to be organised.
“While eight teams might be difficult to start with, we’ve to start with four or five teams,” she says. “I don’t think there’s that much of a lack of talent, because the current lot of women players watch a lot of men’s cricket, play fearless shots, and are not scared of getting out.”
ThePrint made several attempts to reach the BCCI for a comment through email, Twitter and its media managers, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.
Growth of women’s cricket
Around the world and across many sports, women’s leagues and tournaments have started being taken more seriously in the last couple of decades. The trend is visible in the growing viewership figures for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, as well as the US’ Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
Women’s cricket has lagged behind its men’s counterpart in popularity, and saw very little exposure till even a decade ago — not many except the most ardent cricket fans know that the first cricket World Cup was a women’s tournament (in 1973, two years before the inaugural men’s tournament) and that Australia’s Belinda Clark was the first person to score a double century in one-day internationals — 229 not out against Denmark in Mumbai in 1997 — 13 years before Sachin Tendulkar achieved the milestone in 2010.
The world governing bodies for men’s and women’s cricket, ICC and IWCC, merged in 2005, and in 2009, the first Women’s World Twenty20 (as it was known then) was staged alongside the men’s tournament. The women’s tournament was held independently for the first time in 2018.
India has produced its fair share of star players, including the longest-tenured current members of the team — batter Mithali Raj and pace bowler Jhulan Goswami. But in India, the sport only started gaining viewership and popularity with the advent of the current generation of cricketers, including Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues, when the Indian team began performing consistently on the world stage, and finishing second in both the ODI and T20 World Cups in 2017 and 2020 respectively.
Women’s cricket came under the BCCI in 2006, a year after the world bodies’ merger, but it took a while for the board to take it seriously. But once it did, the results were there to see — India Women gained experience by playing 44 ODIs between the 2013 and 2017 Women’s ODI World Cups, the second-most of any nation in that time frame behind New Zealand’s 46, and then a world-leading 22 T20Is between the 2018 and 2020 Women’s T20 World Cups.
There’s more focus on women’s cricket around the world too, as teams are becoming more professional and the quality of cricket is improving. Australian all-rounder Ellyse Perry, who also played international football, is among the biggest stars of the sport, while others like Stafanie Taylor, New Zealand’s Sophie Devine and England’s Heather Knight have also garnered a fan-following.
This star power has fuelled franchise T20 competitions like the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) in Australia and the Super Smash-Women in New Zealand. The WBBL currently consists of eight teams playing 59 matches while the Super Smash consists of six teams playing 32 matches — both at par with the corresponding men’s tournaments.
The WBBL, in particular, has been a ratings revelation — it has become Australia’s fourth-most watched league, and viewership has doubled since it was established in 2015. This has compelled channels to increase their broadcast by 57 per cent year-on-year.
The BCCI’s trial tournament, the Women’s T20 Challenge, also broke viewership records last year, but with just three days and four matches, it’s nowhere near its Southern Hemisphere counterparts.
Women’s cricket shouldn’t be appendage to men’s
Cricket broadcaster Harsha Bhogle believes there’s nothing holding India back from maximising its immense resources and fan appetite for women’s T20 cricket.
Bhogle, who has been a constant presence through the rise of men’s cricket into a juggernaut worth billions of dollars, told ThePrint that India should follow the lead of the WBBL and the Super Smash-Women.
Detailing how he would organise a women’s IPL, if he were in charge, Bhogle said: “The women’s IPL should be held as a standalone tournament in November (while the men’s event is usually held in April-May), with 32 games and each team playing each other once. The teams must have identities, and we should encourage the existing men’s IPL team owners to set aside some of their resources to develop women’s teams under the same names.”
Addressing the so-called ‘lack of talent’ issue, Bhogle suggested the women’s tournament should have different player registration rules to the men’s IPL — for the first two years, teams should be allowed up to six overseas players and five Indian players in the starting XI. “After two seasons, we can reassess and increase the number of Indian players,” he said.
Bhogle said there was a risk that other countries could surpass India in terms of talent and sustained success. “India risks being out-muscled (by England, Australia, New Zealand etc.) in the women’s game, which is getting stronger and stronger,” he said.
“Women’s cricket must stand on its own and not be seen as an appendage to the men.”
BCCI’s attempts to advance women’s cricket
It’s not as though the BCCI hasn’t advanced the cause of women’s cricket since taking over its administration in 2006. It has improved infrastructure, travel, access to good facilities and gear for the women players.
Players now receive match fees, daily allowances and central contracts, with the worth of a Level ‘A’ contracts rising from Rs 15 lakh to Rs 50 lakh in 2018. The number of international tours has increased as well.
Karunya Keshav, sports journalist and co-author of The Fire Burns Blue, a history of women’s cricket in India, said: “Female cricketers have access to excellent facilities, courtesy the BCCI. The top players are also earning well since contracts were introduced a few years ago.”
However, Keshav added that more long-term planning is important: “It will help to have a dedicated point-person or wing to plan and market women’s cricket, so that there will not be a situation where a year goes by without cricket for them.”
Keshav also batted for a women’s IPL, saying it’s very important to improve the standard of cricket and provide financial security to more cricketers.
“Like how the IPL did for the men, it will improve the standard of the national team by giving a platform for new talent, teaching players to regularly play under pressure, helping them learn from international stars, and serving as a bridge between domestic cricket and international cricket. Financially, it can change people’s lives.”
Shubhangi Kulkarni is also confident that a women’s IPL will be financially viable for the organisers. “Women players have become household names now; for the international matches too, we see sponsors coming forward. One cannot compare it with men’s cricket, but there’s definitely scope,” she said.
Bhogle also praised the BCCI for developing an “incredible scale” of cricket being played across age groups, and said now women’s cricket needs its own full-fledged IPL in order to progress to new heights.
“BCCI does more things right than wrong, but most people do not know about it. Organising a women’s Test (in England later this year) is a great idea, as is the ongoing series against South Africa. A women’s IPL would be the next stage in the goal for India’s women to become No.1 in the world,” he said.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)