Around this time last year, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) revealed its plans to host an IPL-style tournament for women by 2023. Aware of the presence of a huge market for women’s cricket in the Indian subcontinent, the then president and secretary of the board – Sourav Ganguly and Jay Shah – expressed their interest in starting the league at the earliest.
The demand for it grew louder with success on the field of play – the national women’s team won the Asia Cup, finished as runner-up in the Commonwealth Games, and won the ODI series in England.
The BCCI had the intent, but no one knew exactly when the much-anticipated league would kick off. The market was widely researched and informal discussions were held with existing IPL franchises and a few other corporations to make sure that the best decision is taken. But even then, not many though that the league would start as early as 2023.
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Rolling in it
The BCCI, despite running against time, made it possible. Within a fortnight, it got its house in order, and the Women’s Premier League was launched. A huge media rights deal was struck with Viacom18, with the five teams being purchased for ₹4,699.99 crore. Even before the dust could settle, the inaugural players’ auction was completed at the Jio World Convention Centre in Mumbai, where five franchises spent a whopping ₹59.50 crore to procure the services of some of the biggest names in women’s cricket.
The BCCI has hit the bull’s eye by arranging everything on short notice. The WPL has already attracted attention from cricketing nations and investors. “The idea is to make the biggest platform for women cricketers and for them to come and perform in the most competitive tournament that women’s cricket is ever going to see,” Arun Dhumal, the chairman of the IPL and the WPL Governing Council, tells Sportstar.
While it is too early to call the tournament “most competitive,” the BCCI is confidently projecting the WPL as a success story. The league aims to edge past the Women’s Big Bash League and The Hundred in terms of quality and reach, but is it all set to transform women’s cricket in India? It certainly has the potential to, but regardless of its impact, it would still be unfair to compare it to the behemoth that is the IPL.
Opportunity for young cricketers
Its value lies in the fact that it serves as a huge platform for cricketers to showcase their talents. At a time when the number of women’s games is still considerably less than that of men, the 22 matches in the WPL would be an opportunity for young players to get a taste of elite-level cricket before breaking into the senior national team.
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“The expectation and pressure that comes with playing in a franchise league is different than that which comes with playing for your State. When you’re playing in a franchise league, accountability is important. You need to keep working hard and you will definitely get a chance,” Jhulan Goswami, the former India captain and mentor of Mumbai Indians, says.
“The most important thing for young cricketers is to stay focussed on the field of play. You have to go out there and perform each and every time. If you constantly do that, some franchises will definitely pick you – if not today, maybe tomorrow. You have to wait for your chance, but you can’t be just satisfied with your one year’s performance. You have to do well and develop your skills and match that with players from around the world (sic),” she adds.
While youngsters get an opportunity to share the dressing room with some of the best in the business, the earnings are its other blessing. As per the current annual central contracts, cricketers in the top bracket earn ₹50 lakh, while those in Grade B and C earn ₹30 lakh and ₹10 lakh, respectively. But the WPL auction was a clear indication that the prices are going to skyrocket in years to come.
‘Long term investment’
Such is the league’s promise that franchises have invested heavily in the league knowing that they wouldn’t break even any time soon.
“It’s a long-term investment. If you look at the popularity of women’s sport across the world - be it the Women’s Premier League, the WNBA - the women’s game has grown leaps and bounds. If you even look at women’s tennis, its popularity, too, has grown by leaps and bounds.
“In Indian cricket, this is one section – the women and the girls – which is still not tapped. Even if I look at the men’s IPL fan base, there’s always more that we need to do with this part of the population and they are 50 per cent of the country’s population. Then, why should they not play cricket?” questions Parth Jindal, the co-owner of Delhi Capitals, which has got a team in the WPL.
Not long ago, there were concerns over whether India has the depth of talent to support the growth of such a league over the long term, but franchises and players feel that increase in domestic games and the presence of U-19 cricket allows for a large enough talent pool.
“A few weeks ago, we became U-19 champions, we were also confused about how we will get into a 100-player pool. But, one of the most important aspects of the auction was that we got appropriate players and teams were also satisfied. That’s the biggest thing. Earlier, people were asking how you’d get a pool of players, so this auction is the answer to your question,” Jay Shah, the BCCI secretary, says.
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There is also the satisfaction of being part of a good cause. “Why shouldn’t they become crorepatis and play for India? Why shouldn’t they dream of playing in a packed crowd? If Delhi Capitals can be part of this journey, this story, I think it completes our franchise in many ways.
It forces us to do more with our youth academies, it allows us to have girls U-15, U-13, U-11 teams and it’s overall fantastic for the game. It makes it more popular and strengthens the game’s drive to become an Olympic sport and it’s great to be part of it,” Jindal says.
There was overwhelming crowd support during the recent white-ball series in Mumbai between India and Australia, and the BCCI is optimistic that crowd support will only grow from hereon. There are plans to have free tickets – although it’s not finalised yet – and other arrangements to make the league a success. The confidence that the WPL would be a valuable addition to the global cricket ecosystem also stems from other examples: a few years ago, when the WBBL and The Hundred got underway, not many were sure of their impact, but both tournaments have by now carved a niche for themselves.
“We have seen in two years that The Hundred has actually revolutionised women’s cricket in the U.K. Women’s cricket is the biggest growth sport in the U.K. Obviously, we’re hoping it has the same impact here in India. But actually, this is more of a global spectrum now, which actually could change women’s sport globally,” Jonathan Batty, the Capitals coach, who guided Oval Invincibles to title win in 2021 and 2022, says.
“You look around the money and fame that have been ploughed in there and it’s fantastic. So, if you are a young woman now growing up, you can see a career pathway where you can earn that kind of money, be on that kind of global stage with so many people watching you – similar to what happened to the men’s IPL that revolutionised the game globally and how it enhanced the game in India and its performance around the world,” Batty says, adding, “I am sure you’re gonna see some of it in women’s cricket…”
The cricketers and the BCCI would hope so, too.
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