With whispers of a possible six-team Women’s IPL doing the rounds, the 2021-’22 Women’s Senior T20 Trophy seemed like the perfect platform to kick-start something special in the country. After a disappointing end to their 2022 ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup campaign, all the top Indian players were set to turn out for their respective states. This was going to be the most closely fought competition in recent times.

Indeed, before the semi-finals, the Senior T20 Trophy saw as many as 17 scores over 150, including a high score of 232/2 by Nagaland against Arunachal Pradesh. The batters have clearly dominated this edition of the competition like never before.

The numbers suggest that Jemimah Rodrigues played with freedom, bossing the competition like an old pro and leading Mumbai with a brand of aggressive batting, but the truth is that we’re making assumptions. We know Nagaland’s Kiran Navgire blasted over 500 runs at a strike rate of 173 and smashed 35 sixes, but we don’t know how she got them.

We know that bowlers across the country struggled to find wickets consistently, but we will never know how many chances they created. Was the fielding standard alright? What is the size of the boundaries? Has there been any dew in the evenings? Did the bowlers dish up plenty of loose deliveries? Or have the batters all just unlocked another gear?

Domestic game still lacks visibility

The numbers are easy enough to skim through, but what we are missing is context; that comes with visibility.

January 2016 was a very exciting time for female domestic cricketers in India. It was the first time a women’s inter-state tournament, organised by the BCCI, was to be televised. The second round of the 2015-16 Senior Women’s T20 Trophy – the Elite Group Super Leagues in Indore – was where everyone wanted to be.

I remember the conversations we had within the Hyderabad team just before our final group game against Maharashtra at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata. There were plenty of nerves ahead of what was a must-win match, but there was also a great deal of expectation and excitement: the hope of playing in front of cameras; the prospect of family seeing us in action for possibly the first time. In our minds, we were moving one step closer to our dreams.

“Amma has never seen me play. I really hope we win, so she can see me on TV,” was a common sentiment floating around the dressing room at the time.

For many who had fought stereotypes, battled naysayers, ignored the jibes of neighbours (and sometimes family) and continued to pursue their dreams, it felt like an endorsement of their efforts.

While Hyderabad went on to lose to Maharashtra in a closely fought game thanks to a masterclass from Anuja Patil, we did watch the Super League on television. The feeling of disappointment was overshadowed by the pride we felt seeing our friends on screen. It may not have been an affirmation of our personal efforts, but there was a sense that women’s cricket was beginning to be seen as more than just a pastime. Maybe we could really make a living off it?

However, six years on, women’s state cricket on television (or online) is still as much of a novelty as it was back then.

Even as the popularity of women’s cricket has continued to grow within the country, with local leagues being streamed on a number of apps and all international series getting adequate coverage, the efforts put in to make the domestic game more visible have been minimal. Of course, the Challenger Trophy and the knockout rounds of the one-day tournament have been broadcast, but there has been little effort to build on that.

You can’t be what you can’t see

Talk to any young female cricketer in India and they will tell you they were unaware of the existence of a women’s cricket team until recently.

Up until the 2017 World Cup, even the Indian women’s cricket team did not receive much media coverage. The matches televised were few and far between, newspapers rarely carried more than a 150-word brief, and marketing was a concept no decision-maker within the women’s cricket space understood.

Cut to the present: while awareness has increased, coverage has improved and international players have begun to get their due, those at the lower rungs remain invisible.

However, it is the visibility of the top stars that has pushed players within state systems to level up.

This new crop of players has grown up on a diet of T20 cricket. They have seen the likes of Alyssa Healy and Natalie Sciver bludgeon the living daylights out of every bowling attack no matter the game situation. They know the levels they need to reach in order to challenge the best. They see, and therefore they believe.

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The involvement of superstars

Harmanpreet Kaur last played state cricket in October 2016. Back then, she was still representing Indian Railways. Smriti Mandhana last turned out for Maharashtra at the Under-23 level in April 2019. Back then, India were still in search of her T20 opening partner. The last time Shafali Verma played a T20 for Haryana, in October 2019, she was fresh off her first international series against South Africa. Back then, the world saw her as a one trick pony: ‘single gear slam-bang Shifu’.

Between then and April 2022, the trio has ticked off a multitude of milestones at the international level. Kaur has since been made full-time T20I captain, collected two World Cup runner’s up medals, played an innings that changed the game in India, won the WBBL Player of the Tournament award and shifted states to Punjab. Mandhana has switched WBBL clubs, dominated The Hundred, scored her first Test ton, won her second Rachael Heyhoe-Flint award, and captained India over half a dozen times.

Her opening partner, Verma, has established herself as the most exciting batting talent to emerge from India since the arrival of Rodrigues in early 2018. After helping India to their first T20 World Cup final in 2020, she enjoyed a record-breaking Test debut, a promising start to her ODI career, received invitations to play in leagues around the world, became world No 1 in the shortest format, and is now captain of her Senior state side.

All these major milestones have been ticked off in front of a large, adoring global audience. However, when the trio donned state colours for the first time in a while, they did so in empty grounds and in front of no cameras.

‘Amma will get to see me play’

Much like it was for us in 2016, there is still a sense of excitement around playing in front of cameras. After all, not many players have the opportunity of playing tournaments at home – domestic white ball competitions generally see teams play across a maximum of two cities. Travel is limited and so are opportunities.

Not all families enjoy the luxury of being able to travel around the state or country to see their daughters in action. Television makes up for that.

“My parents have played such a big role in getting me to where I am (playing for the state),” said a player involved in the tournament. “I have only played one tournament in my home town, but they could not come and watch. When matches are on TV, they watch everything – if I am playing or not. They try to spot me and later tell me everything. It is a nice feeling knowing what I am doing is giving them some sort of happiness.”

For women and girls involved in the game – many of whom have to fight countless battles to find a place in the system – the visibility provided by television is often the little boost that pushes them along what is an arduous path. For them, it is an affirmation. For their families, it is pride. And for the children who stumble upon these matches, it is hope.

Where’s the intent?

As expected, the 2021-22 Senior Women’s T20 Trophy has been the most closely contested tournament so far. While some ‘favourites’ withered away early, others fought the odds to find a place in the knockouts.

Although the matches were not streamed, there was clearly a dedicated audience keenly following every move the women made. While the official website did not provide ball-by-ball scoring, several dedicated fans attempted to do their part to keep everyone informed. If social media is anything to go by, there is an appetite for women’s domestic cricket: they’ve come even before the Colosseum has been built!

While one understands the logistical limitations brought about by Covid-19 and the personnel crunch that comes with the Indian Premier League underway as well, there is a question around the ‘intent’ of the powers that be.

With a superstar cast, a massive 12 months lined up for the national team, and a potential Women’s IPL on the cards, was this not the best opportunity to introduce the country to some of the rising stars of the present and those of the future?

The likes of Pragati Singh, G Trisha, Anisha Ansari, Metali Gawandar, Purni Maya Gurung and Hrutu Patel could have become more than just names on scorecards. But once again, women’s cricket fans have spent a domestic tournament trying to make sense of numbers on a screen.

One doesn’t always need eight cameras and a star commentary panel. Most often, viewers are willing to accept the bare minimum – two stationary cameras will do. What we ask is that you make an effort to show us you care.

There’s talent. But we need your help to see it.

Ananya Upendran is a former Hyderabad pacer, and now a freelance journalist. She previously worked as Managing Editor of Women’s CricZone.

Stats courtesy: Cricket Archive