India’s T20 World Cup campaign underlines need for full-fledged Women’s IPL

Harmanpreet Kaur addresses the Indian team before they take the field. © ICC

The recently-concluded ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2020 in Australia has been a major hit for the sport across the globe. Not only have we seen the rise of some spectacular new talents among all the participating teams, but the general public have also been made more aware of their female cricketing heroes – visible role models for future generations. The record 86,174-strong crowd that attended the final between Australia and India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 8 is a prime example of that.

For India, it was their maiden appearance in the final of a T20 World Cup. The ‘Women in Blue’ have played in all editions of the event since its inception in 2009, but have never featured in a summit clash. Having faltered against England in 2018, India’s semi-final against the same opposition in 2020 was washed out, allowing them to sneak through to the final having topped Group A. Although India crumbled in the final – going down by 85 runs – the team showed great poise, character and fight through their campaign Down Under.

Meanwhile, Australia have won five T20 World Cup titles in seven years, underlining the impact of the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) on the domestic system. Not only has the WBBL – running for the past five years – helped to popularise the game in the country but it has also provided younger players more of an opportunity to rub shoulders with and learn from the best in the business.

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“When I was growing up there wasn’t an opportunity for girls-only cricket. I played my junior cricket with the boys, so it is great that girls as young as six can try cricket,” Australia wicket-keeper Alyssa Healy was quoted as saying to Sportskeeda.

With this in mind, one feels that India could take a leaf out of Australia’s book. Although India have shown great improvement over the last few years by reaching two ICC tournament finals in three years (2017 50-over WC & 2020 T20 WC), both England and Australia are still well ahead of them – especially when it comes to having a ‘strong bench’. For one, women’s cricket in India is still jostling for space in the mainstream media, and two, the pathway system is nowhere near as streamlined as either of Australia or England – both countries with competitive domestic leagues.

Annabel Sutherland in action for Melbourne Stars. © Getty Images
Annabel Sutherland is one of the many success stories of the WBBL. © Getty Images

Noted, India do have a ‘league’ of their own – the Women’s T20 Challenge. It started as a two-team affair with just one match in 2018, and grew to a three-team, four-match tournament the following year. As a continuation to that growth, it was announced that the 2020 edition of the tournament would have four teams and include seven matches. However, this itself is not quite enough.

Let’s take a closer look at the numbers, shall we?

For starters, Australia’s entire 15-member squad for the T20 World Cup have participated in the WBBL or England’s Women’s Cricket Super League (WCSL) for at least four years. That means each of them – including Annabel Sutherland, the youngest member of the team – had the opportunity to experience playing with and against some of the best players in the world in a rather long competition. This pathway has allowed Australia to dominate the T20 circuit in recent times, even seeing them win five of the last six T20 World Cups.

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The depth in Australia’s squad meant they were able to find a way to somehow cover for the absence of Ellyse Perry – who injured herself in the match against New Zealand and was ruled out for the rest of the tournament – easily their team’s best and most versatile player. The likes of Sutherland, Sophie Molineux and Georgia Wareham were brought into the line-up at different times and all were able to handle the pressure of the big stage and perform admirably.

In her first match back, leg-spinner Wareham played a pivotal role in Australia’s four-run win over New Zealand, taking three wickets to bag the player of the match award. Molineux’s spells against South Africa (in the semi-final) and India (in the final) saw her pick up the crucial wickets of Lizelle Lee and Smriti Mandhana. While neither player may have set the tournament on fire, their solid performances allowed Australia to breathe easy at a time when they could have panicked – they knew they had the players who could deliver under pressure.

As mentioned earlier, the groundwork to help develop these young talents is laid in events like the WBBL and WCSL, now replaced by ‘The Hundred’. Each tournament – which runs between two to five weeks – ensures players get more opportunities to experience high-quality competitive cricket over a short time-period. Many players even feel the competitions are able to replicate the pressures of international cricket – playing in foreign conditions against quality opposition in front of large crowds.

Smriti Mandhana has been a revelation scoring runs for fun. ©Getty Images
Smriti Mandhana has spoken extensively about how her time in the WCSL and WBBL helped her raise her game. ©Getty Images

In the lead up to the T20 World Cup, India played as many as 17 T20Is in a year – the same as England – while Australia played 14. Add to those international commitments 59 matches in the 2019-20 edition of the WBBL – on an average, each participating player featuring in 11 games – and a total of 32 games in the WCSL – an average of eight matches per player – and there is little question as to why even an injury-ridden Australia fared so well in the World Cup and went on to win the entire thing.

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In stark contrast to the hosts, only five members from India’s squad had featured in either of these leagues. India captain Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Deepti Sharma and Jemimah Rodrigues were all part of the WCSL last year, and the WBBL has seen the likes of Veda Krishnamurthy (2017-18), Mandhana (2016-17, 2018-19) and Kaur (2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19) participate over the years. While these experiences have seen each of these players improve a great deal, they have done so as individuals, leaving the team slightly behind in its development. A league in India could therefore work as a bit of a quick-fix.

ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2020 semi-finalists to have featured in the 2019 WBBL or WCSL

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After India reached the final of the 2017 ODI World Cup in England, the country seemed to wake up to the women’s game – more girls showing interest to take up the sport and emulate their heroes. The Women’s T20 Challenge (both 2018 & 2019) too received a huge response globally, not only from the cricketers but from the supporters too.

Take the example of Sushree Dibyadarshini, the Odisha girl who was part of the Velocity squad in the Women’s T20 Challenge last year. Although she played just one match against Trailblazers in the competition – picking up the prized wicket of West Indies skipper Stafanie Taylor – she admits she learnt a great deal just being part of the squad. Following that experience, the off-spinner played eight matches across formats for India A, Board President’s XI and Emerging India against some international opponents taking 16 wickets with at least one dismissal in each game.

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“Definitely it (Women’s T20 Challenge) helped a lot,” Sushree told Women’s CricZone. “That was a very big stage where big names from all over the world participated. I played only one game, but it boosted my confidence a lot. The fear before going into big matches reduced from there and as soon as you overcome that, you start to perform more consistently. That’s exactly what that single match did to me.”

Supernovas won the first ever Women's T20 Challenge. ©BCCI/IPL
Competitions like the Women’s T20 Challenge allow young players to rub shoulders with some of the best players in the world. © BCCI/IPL

With players, past & present, and experts calling for a full-fledged Women’s Indian Premier League, it’s high time for the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) to make a proper road map with a vision to bridge the gap between domestic and international cricket.

“This year, we are hoping for some more games in the Women’s (T20) Challenge. That tournament is very important for us because it is of high quality. From there we already got two good players, and hopefully, in the upcoming tournaments we can get more,” India captain Harmanpreet Kaur said earlier in the month.

Legendary batsman Sunil Gavaskar too focused on the point after the final in Melbourne. “Even if there are not eight teams, a women’s IPL will make a lot of sense,” he told India Today. “There will be a lot more exposure for the women. A lot more talent, which is there but we don’t know at the moment, will come to the fore. And then, as the years go by, Indian women’s team will start winning a lot more trophies.”

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“To Sourav Ganguly and the BCCI, I would like to say, maybe next year, look at having a women’s IPL because that will unearth lot more talent. The WBBL has given plenty of opportunities to players, even to our players (Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur). That is the tournament where you get to play against the best players and learn. That certainly has helped them (Australia) find many more players, just like the IPL has helped them—India men’s team— find many more players.”

Elsewhere, former Indian captain, Anjum Chopra is of the view that while a Women’s IPL will help paper over many cracks in the system, more emphasis needs to be laid on the domestic structure if India are to produce quality players. “If IPL starts it basically means more matches, more international exposure. Playing more matches helps but I will never say the only solution is a women’s IPL. You also need to work at home. They need to play a lot, whether as an Indian team, as individuals or for other franchises,” she said from Sydney.

India pacer Jhulan Goswami too echoed Chopra’s views. “This is the right time to do it. We need more matches in the Under-16, Under-19 and Under-23 categories so that we have a proper supply line established,” said the first bowler to take 200 ODI wickets.

It looks pretty uncertain whether (or when) this year’s Women’s T20 Challenge will take place because of the coronavirus pandemic which has brought the sporting world to a standstill. The BCCI could possibly think of a full-fledged Women’s IPL from the next year, the planning of which has to begin now.