When the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announced its intention to launch a six-team Women’s Indian Premier League earlier this year, one aspect that got stakeholders excited was the creation of a new feeder line for talent to come through in the Indian ecosystem.
One can’t fault the expectation. Look at what Charlie Dean managed for England in the 50-over World Cup earlier this year. She rose through the ranks from the club and local tournaments, to the domestic level and The Hundred, and then to the senior national team, taking 11 wickets for her country and helping the side to the final. World champion Australia has reaped similar benefits with its Women’s Big Bash League, now an established part of the calendar, with a steady flow of talent challenging for places in the senior team.
The Women’s T20 Challenge (WT20C) has notably given Indian cricket Shafali Verma.
In 2019, a raucous crowd in Jaipur and many more watching from the comfort of their homes on TV woke up to the brilliance of the then 15-year-old, striking the ball with confidence and taking on international bowlers with a devil-may-care attitude. That was not Verma’s first rodeo. She had earned her place after a good domestic season for Haryana where she also registered a 56-ball 128 in the Senior T20 tournament.
But then, how come there aren’t more?
“This is where your objectives for having this tournament need to be clear,” former India coach W.V. Raman said.
Challenge vs opportunity
“Are you looking to give youngsters a competitive opportunity? Or are you looking to put up a high level of cricket that will make this tournament the beacon for the rest of the world? What are you looking to do? The important thing here presumably would be to have a balance of both,” he explained.
Ahead of this edition of the WT20C, one of the first things Smriti Mandhana, captain of defending champion Trailblazers was asked about was giving uncapped players opportunities. Given there were only three teams and less than a week to put on a good show and retain the trophy, any players rising from the domestic framework would realistically struggle to find slots in the playing XI. The inadequacy seemed to be in available chances rather than the talent pool.
“We have to be practical about a few things. We have four overseas slots and just three matches. As much as we want to go out there and give people opportunities, it isn’t always possible. We want our uncapped players to go out there and get a taste of the action but three matches are too few to do that properly,” she said then.
In the four matchdays that followed, only four uncapped players managed to get game time — Kiran Navgire and Maya Sonawane from Velocity and V Chandu and Rashi Kanojiya from Supernovas.
READ: Mandhana: Always knew Women’s T20 Challenge was stepping stone to Women’s IPL
“When you have only four matches, everyone focuses more on win percentage than focusing purely on giving chances to players because this platform was like an audition to show that girls have the proper game to start the Women’s IPL. There need to be proper cricketing shots and overall display. It’s not that these girls can’t do it. There just isn’t enough time to give them all a shot at it,” former India international Soniya Dabir said.
Dabir was among the 8600-strong crowd watching the final between Supernovas and Velocity last month and believes a full-fledged tournament will do a world of good to the raw talent coming out of India’s system.
“Domestic players who were in the mix impressed too — like Navgire. Her innings of 69 looked like her natural innings, something she would do on a regular day. There were no nerves, the way she was hitting, and the confidence she had might have been greatly boosted by having these Indian and foreign international players in the dressing room,” she said.
READ: Supernovas win Women's T20 Challenge 2022
Nooshin Al Khadeer, coach of Supernovas, was similarly impressed by Navgire and one from her own team — Kanojiya.
“Rubbing shoulders with players from over the world, even if not in the playing XI helps. I was impressed with Rashi because she had plans for everyone in the final. She didn’t play until that game but watched from the dugout.,” she explained.
The WT20C and eventually the Women’s IPL is also an opportunity for players to make a case for coming back into the reckoning for the national side. That is a pathway the likes of Jemimah Rodrigues (2 matches, 90 runs) and S. Meghana (1 match, 73 runs) will hope is active.
Despite finding herself out of the team, Rodrigues has been a regular face in the Indian setup. Meghana on the other hand, despite making a compelling case for her inclusion in the World Cup squad with fluid batting performances, found herself out of the mix. She scored 4(14), 49(50) and 61(41) in the three ODI games and 37(30) in the T20I vs New Zealand and had standout scores of 84 and 52 for Railways in the knockouts of the Senior Women’s T20 Trophy.
Performances in the WT20C will give these two some confidence on that front.
“I strongly believe that we can want a million things, but we don’t always get them all. However, when something does come our way, we should grab it with both arms. I am so happy with the way the girls performed in the WT20C. Sometimes, when you’re at the doorstep, you need to ring the right bell, and the girls have done just that,” Nooshin said.
India’s talent pool
Former India international and administrator Shubhangi Kulkarni sees an initial reliance on senior team members and the foreign talent pool but sees the Women’s IPL going the same way as its male counterpart.
“Even in the Senior Women’s T20 Trophy, our Indian internationals participated. When Smriti captained Maharasthra, the girls stood to learn a lot. The main thing Indian players pick and need to pick from the internationals is fitness and running between the wickets and reducing our dot ball percentage. Initially, we might have to depend a little on our senior players and foreign participants. But eventually talents will emerge from the Women’s IPL,” she said.
The focus on fresh legs couldn’t be better timed. Questions linger about the futures of senior pros Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami. While the duo has said nothing about the road ahead for them, their absence was loud in the Senior Women’s T20 Trophy (Goswami is nursing an injury, Raj travelled with the squad but didn’t feature in their campaign) and in the WT20C.
Beyond personnel demands, the line between our domestic framework and the IPL is a thin one and Raman warns against viewing them in the same light.
Importance of domestic cricket
“Domestic cricket is all about providing a platform for cricketers from a very young age to take up the game and make cricket a career. IPL is a launchpad for you to play a high level of competitive cricket with and against the best in the world and make a lot of money. You’re trying to compare a grown individual with someone who is learning to walk when you put these two together. If you challenge them to a sprint, it isn’t a fair comparison at all. The requirements and objectives of both these spheres are different. On the management side, the associations run the activities with the sole purpose of promoting cricket. IPL brings in corporate entities whose objectives may match but are much broader. To try and connect these strings and make a rope won’t be beneficial for the framework,” he explained.
That said, Kulkarni urges more focus on domestic pathways to open the game up to a larger section of girls who can then fit themselves into the many routes available — franchise cricket or branches of the domestic framework.
“Domestic cricket is where an entry point comes up for young players. We should focus on the U-16 level as well so younger girls have another door into the system. If a girl wants to play and sees there are no opportunities or tournaments, they move to other sports. Luckily, cricket is the game in this country, so we should have more pathways,” she added.
Raman concurs, calling for the Indian framework to cash in on the upcoming U-19 World Cup.
“What is really going to drive domestic cricket and in turn drive the IPL is the U-19 level. The ICC kickstarting the U-19 WC for the girls is going to have a butterfly effect. If you look at it from the outside, this can optimistically mean about 600 girls coming into the system and playing for their states which means at least 6000 girls take up the sport throughout the country. The proliferation will be very crucial.”