What if the exhibition T20 match was a test to see if there is scope and a market for women’s Indian Premier League?

What if the match was not on a weekday afternoon in sweltering heat with steeply priced tickets clubbed with a later match? What if it was a standalone match with easier access? What if it was broadcast during prime time?

Such were the questions flying around when two teams of top international women cricketers took on each other in a one-of-a-kind T20 match at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on Tuesday, hours before the Qualifier 1 between Chennai Super Kings and Sunrisers Hyderabad.

In what turned out to be a low-scoring thriller Harmanpreet Kaur-led Supernovas edged past Smriti Mandhana’s Trailblazers by three wickets on the very last ball of the match. All three results were actually possible, till the very last second, a proper nail-biter even if the stakes were not high.

Sitting in the crowd were several local women cricketers – from middle-aged former players for whom this match was a massive step, to the younger age-group cricketers who enthusiastically cheered the players. And all of them agreed that while this match showed that a women’s IPL is viable, it needs to be more visible.

“This was an acid test for women’s IPL and I would say the test was passed,” said Archana Das, who has played 11 ODIS and 23 T20Is for India. Throughout the match, she discussed the play with other cricketers in the crowd including Mumbai Cricket Associations’ Women’s Selection Committee member Leya Francis.

Francis agreed that the match should have been at a better time but having played at a time when women’s cricket wasn’t an actual pro career option, this was a huge step forward.

And in the end, while the test was passed and many what-ifs remained, at the heart of the matter is the fact that IPL pulled off a entertaining women’s T20 match involving some of the biggest names in international cricket.

Crowd response

The crowd was definitely not up the mark. But for a 2 pm game on a Tuesday in May, with entry clubbed with tickets for the IPL men’s qualifier starting at 7 pm and no re-entry allowed, this was expected. However, the numbers were certainly building up – maybe not enough for a ground as big as Wankhede to fill up – and past 4 pm, a decent crowd started trickling in, the kind that applauds Harmanpreet’s arrival on crease and good fielding efforts. The kind that was here for the exhibition game, and not just the family and friends of the players. At one point, Dwayne Bravo’s “Champion” song was played on the loudspeakers, and even in the sparse crowd there were people dancing to it with the signature step.

Of course the atmosphere wasn’t like the women’s T20I tri-series at the neighboring Brabourne Stadium last month, where fans came in with banners for women’s cricket and chanted Ellyse Perry’s name. They probably couldn’t make it with the rush for tickets and the cost factor, but there was plenty of buzz on social media to keep interest in the game.

The match itself had most of the synthetic elements we have come to associate with IPL – the mid-match interview, music during the breaks, the enthusiastic stadium announcer, the LED stumps et al. But more importantly, the cricket was entertaining. For those who will compare it with the men’s IPL match that followed, it won’t match up and there were comments about the number of boundaries or the lack of it. But the highlight was probably the fielding, from Harmanpreet stunning diving catch at mid-on to dismiss Mandhana to the low drop catch Perry took to send back Jemimah Rodrigues.

But despite the regular fall of wickets, 130 was a par score and the absence of a boundary glut was more than made up for by the classic shots from Mithali Raj and Suzie Bates, and the likes of Jhulan Goswami and Lea Tahuhu bowling in tandem. It was this melting pot, the top names playing together that was the big success of this match.

Everything said and done, this was a start. Women’s IPL has the potential to become a regular fixture with domestic names and international stars. The quality was on display, in a match that went to the last ball. But Tuesday’s exhibition match was just the first step. The development of the game will depend on what happens from now on.