Women’s T20 Challenge: A night in Pune provides tasty prelude to WIPL

Kiran Navgire, Jemimah Rodrigues and S Meghana can all be big attraction at the Women's IPL © BCCI

The Indian Premier League (IPL) is supposedly the biggest festival of cricket. But, in a land which claims to worship its females, why aren’t the women part of the biggest cricketing extravaganza?

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The Maharashtra Cricket Association International Stadium in Pune is a world class facility by all means. Hence, when the Women’s T20 Challenge 2022 was allotted to this venue, the excitement should have been palpable. At the same time, it was easy to spot a couple of flaws in the plan. 

For starters, the stadium sits almost at the edge of the city. It is so far away from the city that your GPS might actually show that you are in Lonavala. For any 7:30 PM game, it becomes a hassle for anyone to come down all the way. Add the fact that the stadium has not been deprived of any cricket. It just saw 13 IPL matches (yes, the thing where only men play). 

On top of that, the first game happened on a Monday (May 23) night. The second match happened the very next day in the scorching heat of Pune, which during the afternoon, can be somewhere around 35 degree celsius. The third fixture was on a Thursday night. In total, the three games had a turnaround of about 5,000 people. But were they entertained? Yes, definitely. 

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The first day saw Priya Punia giving her side a good start. She is someone who has been knocking on the doors of the Indian team ever since she was left out. Then there was Harleen Deol, who recently scored a century for Himachal Pradesh, and looked to have regained her touch with the bat. Then there was Pooja Vastrakar, fondly known as ‘Chota Hardik Pandya’, who took four wickets to bowl her side to a win.

By the time you were done comprehending all that, you saw Shafali Verma hit a 33-ball 51. It was this very tournament that announced her arrival and unveiled the potential she has. That was back in 2019. Since then, Verma has not even played ten matches in the Women’s T20 Challenge. 

In the third game of the 2022 season, S Meghana produced an innings for the ages. The top-order batter has quite a remarkable story. She made her India debut in 2016 and then didn’t get to wear the Indian jersey for another five long years. But, on Thursday, she showed her full range of shots, some of which were visible even during the New Zealand tour, when she turned up with scores of 61 and 49 before Smriti Mandhana returned from MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine).

Coming back to Thursday night, there were a couple of blistering knocks. One of them was played by Jemimah Rodrigues. The young Mumbai batter has been some sort of a prodigal child ever since she stepped into the world of cricket. Some indifferent form in the recent past meant that she wasn’t on the plane to New Zealand, but there is no way one can say she isn’t one of the leading players of the country at this moment. 

Jemimah Rodrigues could be a big buy at the Women's IPL

Jemimah Rodrigues effected a stunning run out © BCCI

With her knock in the third game, she showed why she gets the sheer volume of attention she does. Not just with the bat, bur also by effecting a run out with an excellent direct hit from deep extra-cover. With her knock and fielding display, she proved a point as to why the Indian team should not look beyond her. 

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But Thursday night was lit up by another player, Kiran Navgire. The Maharashtra-born player is from Solapur. She has traveled quite a few miles to reach Pune. Having come down at a young age to the city, Kiran polished her skills at the Azam College Campus. She was picked by the Maharashtra state team, but didn’t manage to make a huge impression. Then came a switch to Nagaland, which changed her career. 

In the senior T20 Trophy tournament, the top-order batter managed to break all records. She was the leading run-getter, the next best was over 200 runs behind and the leading six hitter with 35 sixes – 20 more than the second best. But, all of that came in the Plate league, which is why there was some skepticism around her numbers. Thursday night was her litmus test and boy, did she announce her arrival in style. 

Being a dedicated MS Dhoni fan, Navgire told Women’s CricZone that it was her dream to meet her idol. She expected that if she could turn up and perform well in this tournament, the World Cup-winning captain might just allow her to meet him. “My cricket started because of him and the reason why I play so passionately is because I hope to get to meet him once,” Navgire said. 

She hit her first ball ever in the competition for a six. Then she hit four more on her way to 69 runs from 34 balls. There was brute power, there was no mishits. This was not a fluke. The stage was set for her and she did what she has been dreaming of all these years. The 2000-odd fans who turned up in Pune on that Thursday night will brag to their friends all their lives if Navgire becomes a big name in the next few years. 

Kiran Navgire's inning showed why an IPL is needed for women

Kiran Navgire put on an exemplary display of power hitting © BCCI

The young girls in the stand, who came on a free pass from their coaching academy or school, went back with aspirations of what they can become. Don’t be surprised if a small girl tomorrow comes and says, ‘I started my career because of Kiran Navgire.’ Her knock allowed her team live to see another day in this tournament. The fans will get another game to watch her bat and smash sixes like that. But, what happens after that? That’s a question which even Navgire won’t have an answer to. 

A couple of journalists will run after her for a few interviews. Praise her for a while before the limelight shifts onto the next celebrity bowl-up on Twitter. It’s grim, but it’s a reality of the women’s game in India. Every big step is followed by a few dead end questions. The number of matches which the Women’s T20 Challenge has seen in its history is equal to the number of matches the inaugural men’s IPL saw in its first two weeks. 

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Today the men’s IPL is arguably one of the biggest sporting leagues of the world. It has 70+ matches every season and has given signs it could increase that number in a few years time. What that has done over the years is create a factory which keeps churning out fresh and young talents. This largely benefits the national (men’s) team, which has been reaping the rewards for the past decade or so. 

While all of that keeps happening in the men’s game in this country, the women’s game seems to be an afterthought – and Women’s T20 Challenge as a competition is just that. What the three days in Pune have shown is this generation of Indian women cricketers deserves a platform. The women’s game in this country should not be treated anymore like the youngster who is extremely talented but hardly gets a chance in the side. 

Imagine what a Navgire does if she regularly gets high-class matches like Rishabh Pant or Sanju Samson did when they started their IPL careers. Imagine what a Rodrigues can become if she plays 14 matches every season of this quality. And, imagine what a Meghana can do if she is facing top-quality bowlers in a full season and keeps improving. 

But the light might just shine on these ladies in the next few years. There is something in the air which makes us believe that a full-fledged women’s IPL is on its way. Several franchises are already interested in owning a team if that tournament sees the light of the day. The BCCI has hinted that 2023 could just be the year. 

Interestingly, if today you were to search a player’s IPL record, you will notice the title reads, ‘Virat Kohli – iplt20.com – Men’s Team’. Google ‘Virat Kohli IPL’ and you will know. Until a few years back, the word ‘men’s’ was not there. It’s a minor thing, but a step in the right direction. Apart from this, there have been enough indications that the air has started to feel positive. 

What Thursday night showed was what a day of Women’s IPL matches could potentially have. A night game, a world-class arena, two strong teams going head to head, a youngster from humble beginnings announcing herself, a player who has been in and out of the side trying to seal a spot and another trying to prove her prodigy tag right. All of that adding to some riveting cricket.

The day is not far when all of this will be the story of every night. We will have a Navgire or a Rodrigues or a Meghana doing amazing things every now and then. The festival will welcome the ladies into it. The question is, will you celebrate them like you did for the men?