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Can the WPL make women's cricket in India mainstream?

Men's cricketers have long been household names in India. While there's still a lot of work to do, the WPL, optimistically, brings the women one step closer to this

Zenia D'cunha
Three of the WPL teams, including Harmanpreet Kaur's Mumbai Indians, have an existing cricketing fan base to draw upon  •  Mumbai Indians

Three of the WPL teams, including Harmanpreet Kaur's Mumbai Indians, have an existing cricketing fan base to draw upon  •  Mumbai Indians

A recent television advertisement for the Women's T20 World Cup showed a lady asking a sports shop owner for the other Sharma's cricket jersey when given one with "Rohit" printed on it. She's laughed at for not knowing cricket and she responds with a photo of Deepti Sharma, also an Indian cricketer.
The promo for the first-ever Women's Premier League (WPL) follows a similar theme - "Har zubaan par naam tera [Your name will be on every tongue]."
The idea is simple - cricketers have long been household names in India. It's time this is extended to the women's team as well. With the long-awaited WPL, set to begin in Mumbai on Saturday, we are, optimistically, one step closer.
To women's players to be included in the wider cricket consciousness. To their names being part of the cricket conversation so commonplace in India. To the gender-neutral "batter", now recognised by even the keeper of the laws of cricket, being used regularly.
This inclusivity may seem basic for the women's version of the high-profile IPL. But that's the start.
The money and media, team owners and sponsors are already here, but the big hope is for WPL to establish women's cricket in the mainstream discourse of the sport.
Away from the headlines and hashtags, into the heartland of India's cricket crazy fan following. The ones that are often found analysing yesterday's match, the ones that make memes about it, the kids who try to shadow bat and bowl while walking to school, or even the adults who critique believing they could have played better.
It is these peculiarities that make the Indian cricket fan what it is. It is this that a daily, franchise-owned league can reach. So much more effectively and emotionally than the exhibition four-match Women's T20 Challenge we had before.
The usual benefits of having a top-tier T20 league at home are there for all to see, whether it's the IPL or the Women's Big Bash League. When Harmanpreet smashed her 171 not out against Australia to take India to the 2017 ODI World Cup final, the ripple effect quite literally changed the game in India. This trailblazer of an innings came after her highly successful first season at the WBBL.
The same type of knowledge transfer and competitive experience will now be available at home for Indian players. The raw potential will get a finishing school that is not international cricket. There will be fresh ideas and experimentation that will only benefit in the long run.
But for the players and the long-time followers of the women's game, the WPL stands for so much more.
It's real, tangible proof that there's scope and hope for women's cricket to be part of the big time. That there is depth and talent in all corners of the country, something so often used as an excuse to delay this very league. That there is a market and monetary backing for the women too; another common argument against it. Three of the five franchises already have men's IPL teams (and the other two own Pro Kabaddi teams), which means there is a ready fanbase there.
With the WPL, women cricketers will enter a mindspace beyond that of the ardent fan. If the WPL can capture even a fragment of the segment that the IPL occupies, inclusivity will turn into popularity.
And while providing this platform for the future of women's cricket, the WPL will only raise the ever-growing profile of the game in the present.
Beyond the big names - the Mithalis, Jhulans and Harmanpreets - how many Indian players are actually well known in India? Do people know their skill sets, their stories?
That explosive opening batter Shafali Verma disguised herself as a boy to join the district team. That fast bowler Shikha Pandey was part of the Indian Air Force as a squadron leader.
Both are internationals who've played World Cups, reached finals and have viral moments on field. (Go search for women's cricket Ball of the Century on Google.)
The average cricket-watching, news-reading folks probably know of them. But with the WPL, these players will enter a mindspace beyond that of the ardent fan. If the WPL can capture even a fragment of the segment that the IPL occupies, this inclusivity will turn into popularity.
And these are just the internationals. The WPL features a variety of players who have fascinating stories. Sneha Deepthi is an active cricketer who is a mother to a toddler - quite a rarity in India. Sonam Yadav and Shabnam Shakil are 15 years old (and World Cup winners already). Jasia Akhtar is a 34-year-old domestic player from Kashmir who plays for Rajasthan.
For close to 22 days, these players will be on TV screens every evening, on phone screens all day, in advertisements and hoardings. Already the buzz is building up nicely, from the know-your-player videos put out by the teams to the big billboards. This is a whole new world for most of India's women cricketers and their fans, on and off field. It's exciting how much potential there is to explore.
That we have the WPL in 2023, more than five years after a charge to the World Cup final revolutionised the game, means that Indian women's cricket won't need another 171 to find space in the main pages.
There will be daily matches during prime time and regular coverage. There will be viral videos and constant content generation on social media. There will be quality, competitive cricket among the best in the world to reiterate that the women's game has firmly established itself in the minds and market of cricket's biggest ecosystem.
The stage is set, the spotlight is here, the game is about to start.
Now the onus is on the stakeholders to make this hard-fought opportunity count. The players need to put up consistent performances to show their asking for this chance was right. The organisers and owners need to ensure smooth functioning and promotion so this chance is maximised. The fans need to show up and support from stadium to streaming.
It's for everyone to remember - #YehTohBasShuruatHai [this is just the beginning], as the WPL's official hashtag goes.
A five-team, 22-match WPL is certainly a step above the Women's T20 Challenge, but there is a long way to go to create a culture and competition that makes this tournament a bona fide counterpart to the biggest T20 league in the world.