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Women's T20 Challenge a step towards an IPL for Harmanpreet, Mandhana and Co

Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana pose for the cameras in Jaipur PTI

At the peak of the #10YearChallenge social media fad, in January this year, emerged two images of Sydney's Drummoyne Oval on Twitter. One was of an England v West Indies ODI from the 2009 Women's ODI World Cup, with scarcely any spectators in sight; the other of the ongoing Women's Big Bash League final on Australia Day, with a sellout 5,368-strong crowd in attendance. The opening line of the tweet from renowned British broadcaster Alison Mitchell read: "What a difference a decade makes."

As the first multi-team Women's T20 Challenge gears up to run in Jaipur from May 6 to 11, be advised to be reasonable and not expect such scenes to play out at Sawai Mansingh Stadium. But somewhere between women's cricket in India experiencing its own Drummoyne Oval 2019 moment in the future and the one-off women's T20 exhibition match that had less than 200 spectators in attendance at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium last year, the three-team tournament could warrant its own viral before-and-after photo-post.

What really is the big deal about the Women's T20 Challenge, though?

For starters, this is no longer an 'exhibition' event. With nominated XIs to take the field, and a maximum of four overseas players permitted in each side, the Women's T20 Challenge will be carrying official T20 status, in line with the IPL, the Women's Big Bash League in Australia and the Kia Super League in the UK. Three of the four matches will be night fixtures - a rarity for women's cricket in India - with one starting at 3.30pm India time.

Some of the best female internationals from New Zealand, England, West Indies, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India will be in action in the space of just six days, another unusual occurrence. Unlike last year's game, for which Indian players were only paid a daily allowance, all the participants will get a match fee here.

The BCCI envisages the tournament as a prelude to a full-fledged women's IPL, "the next big step for women's cricket", as Australia captain Meg Lanning put it two months ago. Although Lanning and her Australia team-mates will be missing out on the event, years down the line - how many years, though, is anybody's guess - the Women's T20 Challenge could be acknowledged as the one that changed the narrative around women's cricket in the biggest market for the game.

The debate over whether a market does exist yet for women's cricket in India is far from settled. What one can say with some certainty, though, is that two of India's current players are bonafide stars in overseas leagues.

The highlights of Harmanpreet Kaur - already a "hot property" in the WBBL following her maiden season in 2016-17 and her epic 171 not out - hitting the winning six for Lancashire Thunder on debut at the KSL last July crossed a million views on YouTube inside three days.

Smriti Mandhana's record-breaking maiden stint at the same tournament, for her franchise Western Storm, hastened her burgeoning worldwide fan base and earned her a recall at the WBBL's fourth season.

Harmanpreet and Mandhana, along with two of India's - and cricket's - all-time greats, Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, and Veda Krishnamurthy and teenager Jemimah Rodrigues are now faces of many home-grown and international brands. Their social-media following runs into millions, more than some of the world's best known non-cricket female athletes.

On the performance front, India have had good showings in the recent past, at least as world tournaments go. A runners-up finish in the 2017 World Cup and a semi-final qualification in the 2018 T20 World Cup were both classic underdog sports stories - where they punched above their weight to knock down and knock out heavyweights of power-hitting in non-subcontinental conditions - that made big news.

Those two campaigns alone should have inspired the richest cricket board in the world to piggyback on the brand value of its IPL men's franchises and get its own women's league off the ground. But the groundswell of interest generated by both campaigns was squandered. Following their breakout 2017 World Cup run, India didn't even play an international fixture in the subsequent six months. Besides, during their first home season post-World Cup, Raj and Goswami expressed their reservations about the depth of domestic pool for a women's T20 league to kick off in the country.

The positives of India's first run to the knockouts of the World T20 in eight years, at the 2018 T20 World Cup in the Caribbean, meanwhile, sank in the quicksand of leaked emails and infighting between the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators that oversees the BCCI. The board, on its part, too, has been apprehensive about starting a women's IPL due to concerns over the quality of its uncapped players, a thought recently echoed by current India head coach WV Raman, in the wake of India's T20 series loss against England.

However, with Raj and Goswami, along with Harmanpreet, Mandhana, and several top-drawer overseas women's stars, unanimously calling for a women's IPL in the recent past for the betterment of the game, the Women's T20 Challenge is the BCCI's response to the clarion call. With the T20 World Cup less than ten months away, the tournament also serves an opportunity for the Indian selectors to scout promising uncapped talent and, as Mandhana mentioned at the pre-tournament press conference, help them "assess which players [uncapped or otherwise] would perform well under pressure."

Whether the Women's T20 Challenge is an overnight success or receives lukewarm response remains to be seen. What one hopes it will do, though, is make for a worthy #10YearChallenge throwback in the timeline of women's cricket or, more ideally, a heartening #FiveYearFlashback post, in 2024.

Squads:

Supernovas: Harmanpreet Kaur (c), Anuja Patil, Arundhati Reddy, Jemimah Rodrigues, Mansi Joshi, Poonam Yadav, Priya Punia, Radha Yadav, Taniya Bhatia (wk), Chamari Atapattu*, Lea Tahuhu*, Sophie Devine*, Natalie Sciver*
Coach: WV Raman

Trailblazers: Smriti Mandhana (c), Bharti Fulmali, D Hemalatha, Deepti Sharma, Harleen Deol, Jasia Akhtar, Jhulan Goswami, R Kalpana (wk), Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Suzie Bates*, Sophie Ecclestone*, Shakera Selman*, Stafanie Taylor*
Coach: Biju George

Velocity: Mithali Raj (c), Devika Vaidya, Ekta Bisht, Komal Zanzad, Shafali Verma, Shikha Pandey, Sushma Verma (wk), Sushri Dibyadarshini, Veda Krishnamurthy, Amelia Kerr*, Danielle Wyatt*, Hayley Matthews*, Jahanara Alam*
Coach: Mamatha Maben

*Overseas players