In 2010, when the IPL was still in its infancy and the Women’s Big Bash League had not yet been conceived, there were eager emails exchanged between women’s cricket representatives of India, England, Australia, and a few other nations. This was because, in 2010, the idea for a Women’s IPL was first mooted.
The vision was much the same as it is now: start with an exhibition match, and then grow from there. Two teams were drawn up and internationals were alerted. Initial discussions seemed to have the support of the right people at the BCCI. The atmosphere, for a short while, was pregnant with possibility. But the idea never saw the light of day.
Then in 2015, Cricket Australia launched the WBBL, which has gone on to establish itself as the best T20 competition in women’s cricket. In 2016, the ECB launched the KSL, which will be replaced by the planned tournament, The Hundred. India meanwhile, still have not launched a Women’s IPL,and are now playing catch up.
As established in the previous sections, India desperately needs better bridge tournaments to help close the gap between inter-state and international cricket. The inter-zonals and Challenger tournaments are essential to this, but so is a Women’s IPL, where the best Indian players can rub shoulders with the top overseas cricketers.
Playing alongside cricketers from different countries in leagues in England and Australia has greatly benefited top Indian players such as Smriti Mandhana, Harmanpreet Kaur and Deepti Sharma.
In 2016-17, Harmanpreet became the first cricketer from India to play in the WBBL. Six months later, in the 2017 World Cup semi-final, against Australia, she scored a blistering and undefeated 171 runs off just 115 balls. The confidence gained from excelling in the WBBL, and the familiarity with the Australian bowlers was a key component of this knock, considered by many as the greatest innings in women’s ODIs.
The confidence gained from performing against the best overseas players is something that Indian players could benefit from. The BCCI has so far conducted exhibition matches, named the IPL Women’s T20 Challenge. The 2018 season saw two teams play one match, while 2019 saw the tournament expanded to three teams. These matches were played in Jaipur, televised in prime-time slots, and set new benchmarks.
According to a Star Sports press release, “The first game of the Women’s T20 Challenge between Supernovas and Trailblazers led by Team India T20 captain Harmanpreet Kaur and left-handed opener Smriti Mandhana saw the highest reach for any women’s T20 game at 41mn viewers. The total reach for the four games stood at 74mn viewers.” More importantly, it gave a talent like Shafali Verma a platform, allowing her to be fast-tracked into the Indian team. Within six months of her T20I debut, the 16-year-old rose to the top of the ICC T20I batting rankings, and took India to a T20 World Cup final.
The BCCI announced in 2020 that a fourth team would be added to the exhibition matches. However, there was no clarity as to when a full-fledged Women’s IPL would be launched, and what form it would take. The lack of depth in domestic cricket has been identified as a concern. But while India waits for this depth to build, they lose ground to England and Australia. There is a case for starting a scaled-down version of a Women’s IPL sooner rather than later.
Australia has proven to be the leader in the development of women’s sports over the last decade, and two of their fledgling women’s sporting leagues that have been deemed successful provide answers to some pressing questions facing a future Women’s IPL:
1. How long before it starts?: Australian Rules Football is played by 18 men’s clubs in Australia. But the AFL successfully launched a women’s league, AFLW, with only eight teams. Of the 18 teams, 13 submitted expressions of interest to a tender floated by the AFL, and eight were granted licences. The initial seasons were broadcast on free-to-air television. When those succeeded, interest increased from other clubs and the public. As grassroots numbers and depth improved, the competition added two new clubs in 2019 and four more in 2020.
2. What will it look like?: The WBBL, launched in 2015, quickly became the best women’s sports league in Australia partly because it allowed a crossover of fan loyalty by having the same teams that played in the Big Bash League. Existing Sydney Thunder fans could identify with the Sydney WBBL team easier because they wore the same colours. “Aligning the WBBL brands with the BBL brands will help cricket to appeal to a broader audience and gain greater exposure,” the then CEO of Cricket Australia, James Sutherland, explained. It was a departure from established practice. Most women’s sporting leagues across the world, such as the WNBA, have separate identities and organisations as compared to men’s teams. The concept of ‘One Brand, Two Teams’ has proven to be a success, and has been successfully replicated by the AFLW as well.
The BCCI’s intention to play a four-team exhibition series in 2020 indicates that they do believe they have enough talent for a four-team tournament. Therefore, a smaller Women’s IPL, comprising four of the existing eight franchise teams, can and should be launched as early as 2021. A tender can be floated inviting interest from franchises. Interviews conducted by the authors with various franchises indicate willingness of at least three franchises to start women’s teams. The BCCI could make it financially viable to do so. The natural progression is that Women’s IPL teams be aligned to existing franchises, ensuring women’s teams can share facilities, branding, fan loyalty, organisation benefits, staff etc. The tournament can be expanded to eight teams in three to five years.
This is an excerpt from “An Equal Hue: The Way Forward for the Women in Blue: A Report on Growing Women’s Cricket in India” by Snehal Pradhan, Karunya Keshav and Sidhanta Patnaik presented at the The Sports Law & Policy Symposium and republished with permission.