India's triumph over Pakistan in the final of the first-ever ICC Men's T20 World Cup in 2007 drew not only worldwide attention towards T20 cricket but also led to the creation of the Indian Premier League by the BCCI a year later. With the further introduction of leagues around the world, the shortest format has taken the centre stage given it is just a three-hour spectacle, unlike One-Day Internationals.
Down Under, Cricket Australia moved a step further and staged Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) alongside the Big Bash League, for both locals and overseas players. The England Cricket Board (ECB), in an attempt to water the same garden, started Kia Super League (KSL) shortly.
In an exclusive interaction with ANI, star players Suzie Bates, Danielle Wyatt, Stafanie Taylor, Sophie Devine, Dane van Niekerk and Marizanne Kapp, shared not only how these tournaments developed their games but also revealed that a full-fledged IPL-style women's league is long overdue. "It (WBBL and KSL) has really contributed to the improvement of the women's game globally, not only with the skill level but also in attracting new fans to the game," New Zealand all-rounder Devine said. "To be able to play alongside players from different countries and in different conditions has been hugely beneficial for my own game."
Devine's smashing sister and world number one T20 batswoman Bates commented, "They (leagues) have really challenged me to expand my game and I have enjoyed getting to know other players from around the world and how they go about their cricket and the different challenges players face from other countries."
While South Africa captain van Niekerk pointed out, "The best play against the best and that is what you want outside of international cricket. It has changed women's cricket and truly made it a global sport for all girls and women. As a player, you grow and learn so much in these leagues." Since the WBBL started, Wyatt has donned the Melbourne Renegades' jersey.
The England opener said, "Melbourne is a great place to play cricket and to test me against some of the best cricketers in the world. It is the same for KSL. I love playing in these different T20 tournaments across the world. It is a lot of fun making friends and playing together but it is also a massive challenge on the pitch which I love as I want to carry on improving and getting better. The ECB has done a fantastic job with the KSL and it is great to see (the same) in other tournaments across the world."
In August 2004, New Zealand defeated England in the first Women's T20I. Since then, women's cricket has made rapid progress but that has created its own challenges -- from empty stands to fewer matches broadcast, the reach of women cricketers is still limited. The BCCI had organised a one-off Women's T20 Challenger last year.
Overseas players including Wyatt, Bates and Devine featured in the inaugural match consisting two teams -- Harmanpreet Kaur-led Supernovas and Trailblazers captained by Smriti Mandhana, respectively, which was conducted as a means to test the feasibility of starting women's IPL.
Considering it was all last minute, Wyatt admitted, "It went very well as it is an amazing opportunity to be playing with and against the best players in the world and to test ourselves." Bates, who bagged the Player of the Match, is hopeful that it "is the start of something big for the women's game in India and future female cricketers." While Devine added, "It was great fun to be able to play alongside both domestic and international Indian players and get a glimpse into how they go about their cricket."
Following an unexpected yet satisfying baby step, the BCCI has returned with the concept on a slightly larger scale and added a third team -- Velocity, led by Mithali Raj. The Women's T20 Challenger, beginning May 6, will see the participation of 12 overseas players. The T20 World Cup 2016 winning captain Taylor said, "I think that a similar set up to that of men's IPL will be ideal (to make women's game a success).
However, the duration should be shorter than the men's." South Africa all-rounder Kapp will be busy hosting Pakistan for the ICC Women's Championship but she stated, "I personally think what works really well in the Women's Big Bash and Kia Super League is that you basically have the same type of setup up as the men's teams." Kapp's teammate van Niekerk, who is nursing a neck injury, added, "I think we need the support from the fans. Without the fans, it will struggle to be a success. Also, the best players from all the countries should take part to make it truly competitive."
Players like Anjum Chopra, Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami are considered pioneers, for cricket before them was hardly telecast. However, the dedication of players and administration is commendable. After the ICC Women's World Cup 2017, the Indian team started getting its share of name and fans, which has doubled with a brilliant performance at the ICC Women's World T20 2018. "The athleticism, talent of the young players coming into the women's squad and the fearless cricket they play," has impressed Bates. While Kapp likes the Indian batting for "the way they are hitting the ball and amount of skill that some of the players have."
"Players like Kaur and Mandhana have shown they can clear the boundaries with ease and there are a number of other players coming through that can do the same. Also, the fielding has improved massively -- some of the catches taken not only in last year's T20 exhibition match but the recent World T20 in the West Indies were outstanding," Devine expressed. Taylor highlighted, "The organisation and commitment to the development of the sport have impressed me the most.
India is the biggest consumer of cricket and it is evident by their dominance in international cricket. The meticulous planning and training by both the men's and women's teams show the importance of cricket to not just the players but the administrators as well."
"First of all, the fans are incredible in India. Watching the IPL at home and seeing the crowds turn up, just amazing to see. Secondly, after the 2017 ODI World Cup, the Indian Women's team has taken off massively. Exciting new players have made a name for themselves. Their attacking brand of cricket is exciting to see," van Niekerk said.
The one-off exhibition was a last-ball thriller and telecast by the board's host broadcaster, but the crowd present at Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai was thin, partly because the game had a 2 pm (IST) start. Now in its second year, the tournament will commence at 7:30 pm except the second game, which will start at 3:30 pm as it clashes with the men's eliminator match. Three teams will square up against each other in one round-robin league, with all games to be held at Sawai Mansingh Stadium, Jaipur.
Wyatt acknowledged, "Nobody came to watch us in Mumbai (during the ICC Women's Championship in February) but we had quite big crowds in Guwahati (for T20Is) so hopefully the people of Jaipur will be excited and we can get big crowds in." Keeping aside the venue, Kapp said, "As long as the games are being promoted properly, people will show up and support the women's game. Indians absolutely love their cricket and I believe they will support women's IPL."
The temperature in Jaipur is relatively high during the summer. Wyatt, who claims to "love the heat", said, "The conditions are obviously quite different to home and that takes a bit of getting used to. It is a lot hotter but you have to deal with it and just enjoy it I guess." While Bates added, "It is difficult adjusting to the heat of playing in India but the more you play around the world the more you learn about what to expect and therefore plan and have strategies to keep cool. I try not to over think conditions and keep my game simple and stick to my strengths."
BCCI's attempt to build a full-fledged league may take a few more years, but to strengthen women's game at the grass-roots level and inspire more girls to take up cricket professionally, these high-profile overseas players promise big motivation to lead that route. Van Niekerk said, "You might not know everything but if you can help one person with a bit of advice that is a win. I think that you need to showcase the cream of women's cricket. It gets girls and women interested in the game. You need them to participate, to have grassroots to strengthen.
Grassroots are important, but if this era of women cricketers gets it right, the girls at grassroots will benefit from it ten folds." Taylor called for "words of encouragement about cricket and life off the cricket field" to influence the next generation and added, "We have to start somewhere and these T20 exhibition matches would only help to fuel interest from young girls entering into grassroots cricket. It will also make the administrators take a closer look at what improvements can be done to existing programs."
Bates said, "It (inspiring local players) is not just about your performances on the field but what you can bring to a team off it. I always try to have a professional and positive attitude and be open to chatting to local players about my game and answering any questions they may have but also showing them how fun the game of cricket can be when you put in the hard work."
Devine remarked, "If we can all help one another then the standard of women's cricket will continue to grow. It (women's league) is a great product that is working hard to balance not only the top women cricketers but also exposing domestic players to the next level up." At the international level, India played New Zealand in double-headers setup early this year. The recent Women's Big Bash League was staged alongside Big Bash League to get in more crowds. However, Cricket Australia has decided to provide separate platforms for its future domestic leagues. Even the ICC is set to organise standalone T20 World Cup 2020 for both men and women.
Contemplating the future of women's league in India, Kapp said, "Double-headers is a good idea, especially maybe just for the first year of the women's IPL, just to make people aware of the women's game. However, after that, I think it should be a standalone tournament." Wyatt, however, disagreed, "Maybe in the long-term, they will serve a different role, but I think that is the way forward for now.
Obviously, we want to get the crowds in and hopefully, they will come in early and watch us first. We want all the fans to see that actually women cricketers are amazing, as well as men cricketers." Devine, who was part of the New Zealand team during the double-headers, said, "The timing is crucial to playing double-headers as there is a massive gap between games. It can be a long time for spectators to have to wait around. Also, the time of day and location of matches can have a huge impact. I know at the World T20 back in 2010 in West Indies the men played their final before the women and there was a great crowd that stayed on for our match."
There is definitely a place for women's T20 leagues and the IPL obviously offers a great platform to the aspirations of women cricketers. The Jaipur event holds the key for a possible women's IPL in the near future.
(With inputs from agencies.)