The Sporting Life by Rudraneil Sengupta: A turbo-boost for women’s cricket

The stage is set for the Women’s Premier League (WPL). There are five teams and 87 players on board, purchased for a total 59.5 crore at the auction that took place this past week. Broadcasting rights were sold 951 crore and investors paid 4,670 crore for the five previous franchises, making this league the second most valuable women’s sports league in the world, behind US basketball’s WNBA.

Many of the players who will be featured in the inaugural edition of WPL are currently in action at the T20 World Cup and need to transition to their new franchise teams fairly quickly. The WPL is doing that without another ball being bowled, in an eerily similar way to the IPL: it promises to get the women’s cricket calendar really hectic and will allow players to earn more than from a three-week stint in the rest of the year .

When the Indian Premier League (IPL) started in 2008, it immediately changed cricket. Whether you’re looking at the economics, the increasing popularity of the T20 format, or the concept of cricket as a high-stakes club tournament rather than a matter of national rivalries, nothing has been the same. IPL also provided a platform for cricketers who otherwise might never have escaped the anonymity of domestic cricket.

It’s safe to say that WPL will have a similar if not more profound effect on women’s football given that women’s football in India is still far from being well developed.

Some of the Indian players who snagged big bucks at the auction needed to draw that attention. Smriti Mandhana is arguably the best batter in the game right now, so of course she was the most valuable pick. Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) grabbed her 3.4 million. Deepti Sharma, Jemimah Rodrigues and Shafali Verma were understandably the other big favorites.

Despite their rising status and popularity, even the stars of women’s football need the WPL to thrive. Otherwise, they just don’t play cricket enough, leading to the inevitable ups and downs in form. Take Rodrigues. At 22, she’s a phenomenal talent. Struggling with a lack of playing time and being eliminated from the Indian team, she bounced back when the opportunity presented itself with a string of excellent results as part of England’s women’s league The Hundred. Verma has also had a slight dip in form since her explosive debut as a 15-year-old in 2019. Like any other Indian player, she simply needs more time on the pitch.

Imagine the difference it will make even for those who are not part of the Indian national structure; those who barely make a living from cricket but have persevered for the love of the game. Like Jasia Akhtar, the only cricketer from Jammu & Kashmir to get a league contract. Akhtar is the eldest of six children born to Shopian day laborers. She has made it this far despite the poor cricket infrastructure in Kashmir; moved to Punjab to fight to prove their bravery; made another move to Rajasthan last year and finally got her way by finishing as a top scorer in T20s and ODIs this domestic season, which led to her WPL contract.

A number of teenagers have also received contracts, including 15-year-old bowlers Sonam Yadav and Shabnam Shakil, the youngest picked for the league. It’s a dream come true for her to share a dressing room with the best players from around the world and be part of a world-class coaching system.

If the first WPL goes well, and all indications are that it will, the franchises will take further steps: a junior development program, skills acquisition and knowledge sharing between the male and female franchises, the Building a database of players through fitness technology and using that data to provide more sophisticated and personalized training and recovery programs.

As New Zealand skipper Sophie Devine (signed to RCB) put it: “It’s huge. You talk about glass ceilings and I think the WPL will be the next level. I’m really looking forward to it.” So are we.

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