This article by Snehal Pradhan first appeared in the Economic Times on March 8, 2019, under the headline, ‘Women’s IPL is no longer a matter of good optics’.
The opening game of the 2013 Women’s World Cup hosted by India was shifted out of the Wankhede Stadium so that the Mumbai Cricket Association could play the Ranji Trophy final (featuring Sachin Tendulkar) there. Such a move is now unthinkable; Indian women’s cricket, which often struggled for identity within the BCCI, is now entrenched in public consciousness, thanks to a stellar run to the final of the 2017 World Cup.
There is now new ground to break; more matches, equal pay, and most urgently, a Women’s IPL. And there is a sense, as there was before, that a strong showing by the team in T20Is will precipitate it. Mithali Raj said as much, ahead of the 2016 World T20.
But India don’t need to win a T20 World Cup for a women’s IPL to start, that is a classic case of cart before horse. On the contrary, India need a women’s IPL because they will not win a T20 World Cup without it.
India’s semi-final appearance in the 2018 World T20 surprised many; they were not favourites to make the last four. But since then, India have lost their next six T20Is in a row. They are now staring at their second consecutive whitewash in T20Is. Besides Mandhana, and sometimes, Jemimah Rodrigues, no other batter has made an impression, a fact that on closer inspection, is hardly surprising.
“If you look at the batters from domestic cricket, they face a very different bowling and fielding attack as compared to international cricket,” said Mandhana after Thursday’s loss.
The BCCI women’s domestic system grew to 36 teams this year, spread over five tiers, stretching India’s talent thin. An increase in the number of games saw the inter-zonals scrapped; India’s domestic players played more cricket, but not always of the best quality. The Challenger Trophy remained the highest tournament in the country, but it only provided each player four matches, at most.
“There is a huge gap between international and domestic cricket. That gap needs to be lessened,” Mandhana continued.
Typically, Mandhana put the onus of bridging that gap on herself and other international cricketers. “If you look at our domestic scores in T20s, it is generally around 110, 120. I think we all need to go back, step up and strengthen our domestic circuit, take those scores to 140-150.”
Noble, but unrealistic. It is not Mandhana’s job to raise the standard of domestic cricket, it is the BCCI’s. And, like England have shown, a premier T20 tournament might be the best way to do that.
England have more than 40 counties with women’s teams, spread over four divisions, all completely amateur; players earn little or nothing to play. It is far from a system that can produce excellence. Contracts for their national team in 2014 created an elite program, but could not create depth in domestic cricket. And so the ECB built a bridge: the Kia Super League (KSL), a six team professional T20 competition, concentrating the best domestic talent and adding the value of overseas internationals.
“The KSL for us, as a country, has been huge in helping develop the next crop of players,” said England batter Lauren Winfield.
“They get to pitch themselves against international cricketers in that competition, so you see where they are at. You ideally want 20-25 players to pick from where every single player is ready to rock and play international cricket. It’s really important to bridge that gap,” she went on.
Last year, Mithali raised concerns that India did not have the depth for a women’s IPL. “I personally believe that when you have strong domestic set-up churning out quality players, then giving them an opportunity in IPL makes sense,” she said.
She has since revised that stance, and along with many in the ecosystem, believe the time is right. By an estimation, an eight-team tournament would stretch India’s resources too thin, but there is certainly enough home talent — bolstered by enough internationals — for a four-team version, one that could be scaled up to eight teams in about five years’ time.
Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. Those words, attributed to Arthur Ashe, should be the BCCI’s mantra for a tournament that will bridge the gap between international and domestic cricket. A women’s IPL is no longer a matter of good optics, or gender equality. It is necessary for something far more basic than that. It is necessary for winning games of cricket.