What might the India careers of Harmanpreet Kaur, Jemimah Rodrigues and Poonam Yadav look like in the near future had the Hundred and the Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) not been around?
Beset by flagging form and stiff competition from emerging talent, Rodrigues and Poonam were out of India's starting XI for the best part of the season, and questions were raised over an injury-besieged Harmanpreet's place in the side. But the two overseas franchise leagues have given these players a chance to regain form.
That raises the question: what is preventing the BCCI, which controls the biggest economy in world cricket, from launching a Women's IPL (WIPL)?
"Sometimes, you just have to take an idea and run with it," Venky Mysore, the CEO of the IPL franchise Kolkata Knight Riders, says. "I've personally, on several occasions, mooted this idea with the BCCI." The Indian board, he says, ought to have been the first to roll out a marquee women's franchise competition fashioned after the IPL. Instead, England and Australia stole a march with the WBBL, the Kia Super League (KSL), and the women's Hundred, with unprecedented success.
"It's high time we do this because - leave aside all other aspects, like business, viability, the commercial side of it - really, with just the kind of talent and following, it [WIPL] needs to be wholeheartedly supported."
India were runners-up at the 2017 ODI World Cup and the 2020 T20 World Cup, but the BCCI still explains its reluctance to launch a WIPL by saying there is a "lack of depth" at the domestic level, and there are others on the IPL circuit who agree.
"The way [India Women] performed during the last World Cup, and in the subsequent series [against England and Australia earlier this year] has been very encouraging," says a top official at Chennai Super Kings. "I still feel it [the women's game] has to evolve… and in the T20 format. It will take at least two to three years for them to come to a stage where we can think of an IPL for women."
The Women's T20 Challenge (WT20C) began as a one-off exhibition match in 2018 and became a three-team, four-match event with official T20 status in the two years following. Many expected it to graduate into a full-fledged tournament of its own, but in its current configuration it probably fits the bill for what the board considers an adequate showcase for women's T20 in India.
"I think BCCI has come to the conclusion that they'll have the three-team or four-team women's event every year during the IPL," the CSK official says. "And over a period of time, when the standard [improves] and the public starts to watch the game more frequently, I think that will be the time when they will introduce the Women's IPL. At this point in time I don't think it will be possible to have an eight-team women's IPL, because you should have enough quality players for the tournament to be competitive."
Mysore, on the other hand, thinks there's enough talent going around the world at the moment to launch a WIPL "perhaps even with eight or ten teams, depending on how you structure and open it up".
If the player numbers for an inaugural WIPL were to be drawn up on a middle ground between these two views, a six-team competition would seem realistic. If each of the six squads requires about 25 players, as with the men's IPL, that would mean a total of 150 players in the league.
Four overseas players in every starting XI, like in the men's IPL, with an additional two locked in as reserves in each squad, means 36 of the 150 players would be accounted for from the overseas pool. So you would need a total of 114 Indians - capped and otherwise.
There were 32 players in India's squads this year - for the home series against South Africa and the tours to England and Australia. Let's say this bunch of capped players and India hopefuls, deemed good enough to represent the country against international opposition, contributes 30 players to the 114-player requirement.
Then there's the group of out-of-favour India internationals and India A players, many of whom have performed well in recent domestic seasons but were not picked in any recent India squads, which were limited to 25 or fewer. Pick ten from this pool and the number of domestic players without any India or India A experience that you need to gather shrinks to 74.
In a full women's domestic season in India, with limited-overs competitions in the senior, Under-19 and U-23 categories, there are at least 1100 registered players. According to data obtained from the BCCI, there were 1021 players registered for the 2020-21 senior women's one-day and T20 competitions across 37 state associations. This season there were 982 players registered for the 50-over competition alone (the T20 tournament is scheduled for February-March 2022) and 1053 for the 36-team U-19 one-day tournament.
You could argue that players from the ten new teams - six from the north east (Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Sikkim, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh) along with Puducherry, Bihar, Uttarakhand, and Chandigarh - that first took part in a BCCI domestic competition in the 2018-19 season or later cannot be considered on par with those from the top domestic sides or those in the India or India A mix. The overlap of Under-19 players also featuring in the U-23 and senior tournaments is more pronounced among these fledgling teams than in established sides like Railways, Mumbai, Bengal, Delhi and Karnataka.
Uttarakhand and Chandigarh make a case to be considered exceptions here. The majority of players from Uttarakhand, the current U-19 one-day champions, were part of the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association pool because their domiciles of origin lie in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, the bulk of Chandigarh's players have represented the Punjab Cricket Association before.
In the view of coaches of four north-eastern senior sides ESPNcricinfo spoke to, and Shweta Mishra, a former Madhya Pradesh allrounder who has been coaching the Puducherry sides since 2018-19, about 45-50 "selectable" players make up each of the eight fledgling state's pool (leaving Uttarakhand and Chandigarh out) from which all of their U-19, U-23 and senior squads are picked for a season.
Even if all 50 players from each of these eight sides are excluded from the overall pool of 1100 registered players in any given domestic season, that would reduce the count of available players to about 700. Remove the 40 players in and around the Indian team and the number drops to 660.
Can the BCCI not find 74 players from a pool about nine times as large?
The make-up of the current India teams offers perspective on the skill of up-and-coming young players and the measure of talent at the domestic level. Rodrigues, Pooja Vastrakar, Shafali Verma, Yastika Bhatia, Richa Ghosh and Radha Yadav are among 18 cricketers to have made their India debuts since 2018, on the back of impressive performances in domestic tournaments. Not only have they been match-winners for India on several occasions, in varied conditions, several have also made a splash at the Hundred and the WBBL.
There have been signs of gradual improvement in domestic standards too. In this year's Senior Women's One-Day Trophy, for example, there were 27 centuries (only four of those came against developing sides like Manipur, Assam, Puducherry and Mizoram). Several of those hundreds were by players aged 21 or under. By contrast, 22 hundreds were made in the 2020-21 season, 11 in 2019-20, 23 in 2018-19, and three in 2017-18. The increase in the number of teams and an overall improvement in the quality of pitches have been factors in the rise in the number of centuries, but Suman Sharma, the Delhi senior coach who was formerly on the India support staff, says it would be harsh to suggest that it means bowling standards have not kept up.
"It's the change of mindset that's been the main difference, plus fitness consciousness, IPL's standard of cricket, and broadcast of more women's matches by the BCCI," she says. "The bowlers haven't dropped in quality suddenly. It's just that until five-six years ago, 'crease pe tikna hai' [you have to stay at the crease] used to be the main objective among batters. Now the approach is to score boundaries, rotate strike, and post at least 200. This mindset is pronounced especially among the younger girls."
According to Mysore, Knight Riders is putting its weight behind the WIPL because of what has been seen of women's cricket, and particularly Indian women's cricket, so far: "the style of play, the kind of talent you see, the energy - it's exciting to see that". These determine whether a cricket league is "attractive, novel and [can] generate interest."
And the IPL, Mysore says, has given its existing franchises hands-on experience of selling such a product, built from scratch and developed over 14 years. It also offers a native audience for a WIPL to benefit from.
"When we play at the Eden Gardens, we fill up the stadium; not a single seat is available," Mysore says. "Within the group [of spectators], a significant portion is women and children. That's a segment who will also support a Women's IPL in a big way. So it's up to us now to take that, figure out how we can position that, and market it.""
Data on women's cricket consumption trends among Indians bears Mysore's optimism out.
An ICC report said that India's success in the 2020 Women's T20 World Cup boosted audience interest in the event, whose global viewing hours increased from 55.9m in the 2018 edition to 113.5m in 2020, making it the most watched ICC women's T20 event in history.
Social media platforms and other companies have come on board too. On the eve of the 2020 WT20 Challenge, Twitter rolled out seven custom emojis for the competition, including for the three captains. This was only the second time the platform had launched emojis modelled on women cricketers. The previous instance, "a global first for women's sport on Twitter", was for the 2017 World Cup.
In 2020, sponsors signed with the BCCI exclusively for the WT20 Challenge for the first time in the tournament's three-year history. Telecom giant Jio, owned by Reliance Industries, which owns the Mumbai Indians franchise, came on board as title sponsors. Tata Motors, Unacademy, Paytm, Dream 11, and CEAT, all of whom regularly spend money on men's cricket, signed on as official sponsors.
With superstars like Harmanpreet Kaur, Jhulan Goswami, Mithali Raj [in the competition, it was a] "fairly straightforward decision" to invest in the event, says Vivek Srivatsa, who heads marketing for the passenger vehicles business unit at Tata Motors. Also, it aligned with the company's commitment of fostering diversity and inclusivity, he says.
"Movies or advertising is a strong reflection of the mood point of where society or the world is," Amit Wadhwa, CEO, Dentsu Creative brands, says. "The world is moving more and more towards equality, gender equality being one key part of it. And when you start seeing that in sports, you know this isn't just talk."
The increased visibility of women cricketers in brand communications hasn't gone unnoticed among media agencies and marketing solutions companies.
"For years this [Indian advertising space] was dominated by men and [men's] cricket. Now, with the success that our sportswomen are seeing, they are becoming role models for society and inspiration for younger generations," says Navin Khemka, CEO South Asia, MediaCom.
In a BCCI media release on the 2020 WT20 Challenge's sponsor partnerships, board treasurer Arun Dhumal described the competition as "financially independent"; president Sourav Ganguly hoped the development would "give parents the confidence that playing cricket is a great career opportunity for their daughters"; and secretary Jay Shah underlined the board's desire to "create concrete ways to grow the pipeline of women talent in cricket".
However, the board hasn't taken any steps since to indicate the WT20 Challenge will progress beyond being a sideshow to the IPL. The competition, traditionally staged during the playoffs week of the IPL, wasn't held this year, even though theoretically it had two windows since this year's IPL was played in two instalments.
At the domestic level, calls for the resumption of the U-16 women's tournament - a vital element in the pathway for any successful international cricket team - and the senior multi-day competition have fallen on deaf ears. The season's U-23 tournament is all but cancelled, a casualty of what has been explained as a "packed schedule", associations say.
The national team themselves suffered 364 days of inactivity after playing their maiden T20 World Cup final last March. When they returned to the field this year, a South Africa side without several key players battered them at home.
India's next two assignments, multi-format tours of England and Australia, surprisingly featured a Test each, though they hadn't had any game time in the longest format between 2014 and 2020. India aced both games - to the extent that it made the draws look like jailbreaks for their more seasoned opponents. These feats could go some way towards inspiring them to making a serious impression at the 2022 ODI World Cup, and maybe even a podium finish later in the year at the Commonwealth Games, which will be hosting its first women's cricket event. Suffice to say, this team's propensity for thriving in the face of adversity may well be one of the factors contributing to the growing interest around this team.