Diana Edulji has put her weight behind an expanded Women's T20 Challenge for the 2021 season, saying she would "definitely have a fourth team" on her wishlist. But Edulji, the former India captain who was also a member of the BCCI's Committee of Administrators between 2017 and 2019, feels the idea of a full-fledged IPL-style women's league is "ambitious" at present.
"This year, if it [the Challenge] is in India, given the Australian, England, New Zealand players will be available if the tournament runs in this season, maybe a fourth team will come in," Edulji told ESPNcricinfo ahead of India's return to international cricket after a 364-day hiatus. "Players from those teams, the big guns, will give us a wider range, that will help us and the girls will get extra matches. I would definitely have a fourth team on my wishlist for this year. A fourth team is not a bad idea.
"It may be that the BCCI is thinking of a four-team tournament this year. I'm not sure because I'm not in touch with anybody. But last year, before the tournament got postponed in March because of Covid, they were planning on having four teams."
Debates around a women's IPL have been on for some time. From Meg Lanning and Alyssa Healy to India's senior core - Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami, Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana - all have insisted that a women's T20 competition modelled on the men's IPL is the big step-up awaiting female cricketers. In December 2019, though, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly said that a seven- or eight-team women's competition was at least "four years away".
In February last year, while India were carving out their run to the T20 World Cup final in Australia, the BCCI announced that the 2020 edition of the T20 Challenge would comprise four teams and seven matches. But though the tournament, along with the IPL, eventually went ahead in the UAE amid the pandemic, the length of T20 Challenge and the number of teams remained the same - three teams and four games - as the 2019 edition. No Australian players participated in it owing to a clash in scheduling with the WBBL, and several prominent stars from New Zealand, England, South Africa and West Indies also missed out.
"I feel the BCCI is taking it [the resumption of women's cricket] slowly because they don't want problems with Covid hitting the women's team completely because, see, we don't have a wide range of players"Diana Edulji
Edulji said a full-fledged women's IPL ran the risk of being a flop and closing down.
"Look, I think we are trying to be a little more ambitious in saying we should have a separate IPL for women. It's not that easy," she said. "We will have to first build up our domestic sector again because of this gap. We'll know what's our domestic scene and know how the players are doing in the 50-overs format.
"It's better to move one step at a time than to have a big thing and it flops and it closes. I wouldn't love that. It's definitely not that there should be no Women's IPL. Even if it takes another year or two it's better. Waiting for it, slowly expanding the tournament - from three to four teams. If they have a chance to do it this year - it's better."
Since last year's T20 Challenge, while a few India players have participated in club-level invitational tournaments organised in different pockets of the country, none were involved in any international cricket. The national team is due to begin an eight-match assignment against South Africa in Lucknow on Sunday, their first international match since the T20 World Cup final on March 8 last year. By contrast, though, Australia, England, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies, as well as Austria and Germany have all played at least one series this past year, after international cricket resumed in July following a four-month Covid-19-enforced hiatus.
"I feel the BCCI is taking it [the resumption of international cricket for its women] slowly because they don't want problems with Covid hitting the women's team completely because, see, we don't have a wide range of players, so we have to be extra careful because of the bench strength not being there and, god forbid, if something happens," she said.
Edulji explained that not losing perspective in the pandemic-affected world was vitally important when reviewing India's lack of cricket in the year gone by and the choice of South Africa as the opposition to kick off preparations for the 2022 ODI World Cup.
"Looking at the Covid situation, I would give the benefit of doubt to, you know, don't go by 365 days. As and when the women got a chance, they played. They played in Dubai [Sharjah, the T20 Challenge] and the series [against South Africa] that's starting now," Edulji said. "This series is just right at the moment, for the simple reason that we shouldn't play England or Australia right away till we get into a little form or something. New Zealand has not suffered so much during the pandemic. They've been, touch wood, okay and even Australia - only certain places were affected. England and Australia - obviously, the players are ahead; they have played the Big Bash.
"I would at the moment, therefore, start with a level-playing field for the women because South Africa is a good series to start with. They are not that good or not that bad either. So, slowly and steadily, we can take it, and then play the big guns, so we can get the confidence and go into the World Cup.
"If we start losing the series with the top guns, it could upset our morale. One step at a time is the need of the hour. Players have to be a little patient, and I am sure the BCCI office-bearers and the management do consider - I know that they will not ignore women's cricket."
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha