Monday, 15 February 2016

A Women's IPL? Not so fast...


Ironic as it is, that word best describes the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League, in that it will strongly influence later developments. The WBBL’s groundbreaking debut is another feather in the cap for Cricket Australia (CA) as far as women’s cricket is concerned. With crowds in excess of 10,000 for some games, and viewership ratings that were the highest in their brackets, CA have proved that there is an appetite for high-quality women’s cricket among both television and family audiences.

The WBBL has made its mark on the Indian female cricketers too. Even though Mithali Raj could not be a part of the tournament due to domestic commitments, she was looking ahead. “The T20 World Cup will be important in popularising the game. If we do well in it, it will definitely give birth to the women’s IPL,” she said.

The world of women’s cricket is hopeful that a women’s IPL will become a reality. As am I. But you can’t do a handstand on shaky elbows. If a women’s IPL is to take root and take off in our country, I believe some serious groundwork needs to be done first.

1. An under-16 tournament

Who doesn’t love a teenage wonderkid? However, since the BCCI took over, women’s cricket has been played only in the Under-19 and open-age groups, with an Under-23 tournament added this year.

The U-16 tournament, which used to be conducted by the previous setup, was discontinued. Despite the lack of a feeder line that nurtures teenage talent, India has produced precociously talented players like Smriti Mandhana and Deepti Sharma, mostly courtesy the School Games Federation, which organises women’s cricket matches as well. But to ensure that such players continue to emerge, and that they are exposed to match situations from a tender age, an U-16 tournament is necessary. The current administration has made noises about starting one, and it is imperative that they set it up in the next domestic season.

2. Inter school cricket in big cities

For the future of women’s cricket to be made secure, a concerted effort to increase the number of girls playing cricket at the grassroots level is required. Most young girls don’t play club cricket as the boys do, instead generally turning out for their state U-19 teams directly, if they are talented enough. Thus, a number of girls are lost in the churn, and don’t get the platform to develop their potential over a consistent period. By organising inter-school tennis-ball tournaments, at least in big urban centres to start with, state associations can access a demographic that may otherwise never play cricket, and schoolgirls will have a chance to play competitive cricket below the U-19 age group. The Mumbai Cricket Association have been conducting such a tournament for the last seven years, and are now reaping the benefits, with a some talented teenagers in the squad that won this year’s Plate Group T20 title.

3. Visibility of Role Models

Back in 2002, I watched Jhulan Goswami tear into the England batting line up in her debut series. The sight had me charging up and down our house, bowling at the wall with a rubber ball, dreaming that I would one day open the bowling with her. It didn’t matter that the pictures on the DD sports channel were so grainy, it looked like there was a sandstorm at the venue. The dream sustained me until my debut, six years later. Such is the power of a visible role model. There are thousands of young girls all across the country, who have never seen Goswami bowl or Harmanpreet Kaur bat. The recent initiatives by the BCCI and Star Sports to broadcast the domestic T20 finals and the India-Australia T20Is, with the right publicity, will go a long way in kindling the dreams of the next generation of players.

4. Retention of domestic talent

In the IPL, if international stars are the match winners, its often domestic players who are the show stoppers. Just ask Sarfaraz Khan or Hardik Pandya. Indeed, the quality of the domestic talent in a team is a reflection of the standard of cricket in the country. In the women’s domestic T20s, champions Railways were almost upset by Goa in the T20 Super Leagues. While this augurs well for domestic cricket, for a women’s IPL to be successful, the standard of domestic cricket must rise further. For this to happen, the BCCI must consider starting a corporate trophy for women, similar to the one that is played by men. This will give companies (besides the Railways) reasons to offer jobs to talented players, and make cricket a more viable career option in the long run. It will also increase the number of matches played by women in the season.

5. Vision

Without a doubt, this is the most important ingredient required for the fruition of a women’s IPL. The success of the WBBL is the culmination of a number of progressive moves by CA, in order to achieve their vision of “making cricket the number one sport for girls and women in Australia”. If a women’s IPL is seen as a means to inspire young girls to play, and not as an end in itself, it is not impossible to rival even the success of the WBBL.

When Clare Connor, chair of the ICC’s women’s cricket committee was asked about equal prize money for men and women, she said that if she had a choice, she would use the money elsewhere. “I’d suggest that some of it could pay the amazingly committed female players who aren’t paid to play for their countries. Some could go on further expansion of the international schedule so that teams play more, performance standards rise and the best players become more visible.

Some would undoubtedly go on devising innovative marketing projects to sell an irresistible product to potential sponsors, broadcasters and audiences”. A similar ‘bottom up’ approach must be taken to women’s cricket in India. It needs to start with getting more young girls into cricket, and end with the Indian women’s team becoming world champions. Do that, and a women’s IPL will happen along the way.

With England set to launch their own Women’s Cricket Super League this summer, the question of a women’s IPL is likely to arise again soon. If it were up to me, I’d focus my immediate resources on strengthening the bases of women’s cricket in the country, so the launch pad is firm. After all, women’s cricket in the country would needs a women’s IPL to run as long as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge has, and not be forgotten soon after release.

This article first appeared in 'Seamtress', my column for Wisden India.

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