The stage is set for the Women’s Premier League (WPL). There are five teams and 87 players on board, bought for a total of ₹59.5 crore at the auction held this past week. Broadcast rights were sold for ₹951 crore, and investors paid ₹4,670 crore for the five franchises earlier, which makes this the second-most-valuable women’s sporting league in the world, after US basketball’s WNBA.
A lot of the players set to feature in the inaugural edition of WPL are in action at the T20 World Cup right now, and will have to transition to playing for their new franchise teams fairly quickly. Which makes the WPL, without a ball bowled yet, uncannily like the IPL already: it promises to make the women’s cricket calendar properly hectic, and will allow players to earn more from a three-week stint than they make in the rest of the year.
The Indian Premier League (IPL), when it began in 2008, immediately changed cricket. Whether you consider the economics, the rise in popularity of the T20 format, or the concept of cricket as a high-stakes club tournament instead of a matter of national rivalries, nothing was the same. IPL also provided a platform to cricketers who might otherwise never have escaped the anonymity of domestic cricket.
WPL, it can be said with some confidence, will have a similar effect on the women’s game, if not a more profound one, considering that the women’s game in India is still far from well-developed.
Some of the Indian players picked up for big money at the auction were bound to get that attention. Smriti Mandhana is arguably the finest batter in the game right now, so of course she was the most valuable pick. Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) snapped her up for ₹3.4 crore. Deepti Sharma, Jemimah Rodrigues and Shafali Verma, understandably, were the other major picks.
Despite their rising status and popularity, even the stars of the women’s game need the WPL in order to flourish. Otherwise, they simply don’t play enough cricket, which leads to the inevitable crests and troughs in form. Take Rodrigues. A phenomenal talent at 22, she has had to contend with a lack of game time and being dropped from the Indian team, bouncing back when she got a chance, with a string of superb scores as part of England’s women’s league, The Hundred. Verma too has had a slight dip in form since her explosive debut as a 15-year-old in 2019. She, like every other Indian woman player, just needs more time on the pitch.
Imagine the difference it will also make to those who are not part of the Indian national set-up; those who have barely made a living out of cricket but have held on for 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 daily-wage labourers from Shopian. She’s made it this far despite poor cricket infrastructure in Kashmir; moved to Punjab to fight to prove her mettle; made another move to Rajasthan last year, and has finally come into her own, finishing as one of the top scorers in T20s and ODIs this domestic season, which led to her WPL contract.
A number of teenagers have also been given contracts, including the 15-year-old bowlers Sonam Yadav and Shabnam Shakil, the youngest to be picked for the League. For them, sharing a dressing room with the best players from around the world and being part of a world-class coaching system will be a dream come true.
If the inaugural WPL goes well, and there is every indication it will, franchises will begin to take more steps: a junior development programme, skills acquisition and knowledge-sharing between the men’s and women’s franchises, building a data bank on players through fitness technology and using that data to offer more sophisticated and personalised training and recovery programmes.
As New Zealand skipper Sophie Devine (signed on to RCB) put it: “It’s enormous. You talk about glass ceilings and I think the WPL is going to be the next stage. I am really excited about it.” So are we.
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