An identity crisis, and the promise of a brighter tomorrow

Looking back, and looking ahead, as we get ready for what might be the last edition of the Women's T20 Challenge

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
The three captains, Smriti Mandhana, Deepti Sharma and Harmanpreet Kaur pose with the trophy, Women's T20 Challenge 2022, Pune, May 22, 2022

This could be the final edition of the Women's T20 Challenge before the Women's IPL takes over  •  BCCI

The Women's T20 Challenge has lived through something of an identity crisis since its inception four summers ago. Yet, every time it came along, as a sideshow to the men's IPL and with the promise of being a prelude to a Women's IPL (WIPL), the players, in the words of India batter Smriti Mandhana, "always had this in our mind… [that] we have to put out the best cricket possible so that we have a Women's IPL as early as we can".
As the fourth edition starts on May 23, we take a look at how far the Women's T20 Challenge has come and where it might leave us before making way for the WIPL.
An end, and a beginning
This is likely to be the end of the road for the Women's T20 Challenge.
Don't reach for the tissues just yet, though. The women's game might be richer for the discontinuation of the tournament because - ahem! - talks are gaining ground in the BCCI corridors that an inaugural six-team WIPL might be only as far away as March 2023.
But don't get your hopes up too much right away.
The good part is that, we understand, the intent within the BCCI to launch a WIPL is more pronounced than ever because of India's league-stage elimination in the ODI World Cup last month - by far their poorest result in four world tournaments since 2017.
This is, of course, an Indian Women's T20 Challenge, so we would want our uncapped players to go out there and play something which is very close to international cricket. But two or three matches are really too low [for us] to give opportunities to everyone but we all are really going to try to do that"
Smriti Mandhana
But there are far too many considerations to account for before plans can be firmed up. Not least the packed women's international calendar for 2023, including the inaugural women's Under-19 World Cup and the senior T20 World Cup in South Africa across January and February.
Add to that the question over the availability of overseas players, given the existing leagues already in place - the FairBreak Invitational, The Hundred, CPL, WBBL - in that sequence, starting March - and the men's IPL window itself, if the WIPL is to kick off in March and be a standalone affair.
But that's a discussion for another time. The eve of the 2022 Women's T20 Challenge opener should be reserved for everything the tournament has achieved [which, to be fair, isn't a lot].
The bright spots in between the could-have-beens
"We have got a few talents out of this tournament. We got Shafali [Verma]; we saw her in Jaipur and we picked her from there," underlined Mandhana, captain of defending champions Trailblazers, on Sunday when asked to sum up the import of the tournament. "[And] Richa Ghosh and even Pooja Vastrakar, who have tried to prove themselves through this platform," Harmanpreet Kaur, who led Supernovas to the title twice in three seasons, added.
That the Women's T20 Challenge doesn't boast of a long list of accomplishments is, in part, down to the BCCI's reluctance to expand the tournament in terms of teams and matches, despite at least one public announcement of plans being drawn up for doing both.
It started out as a one-off exhibition game in 2018, and the tournament expanded - as well as limited - to a three-team, four-match competition in the subsequent seasons even though there was room for making it a more meaningful precursor to the WIPL. The ECB's now-defunct Kia Super League, for instance, fared far better in how it nourished the country's women's domestic cricket before the Hundred took the game several notches higher.
That aside, in 2020, the tournament's most recent edition, only Sushree Dibyadarshini and Manali Dakshini got a game apiece with Velocity, among six uncapped Indians across the three squads.
With 13 uncapped domestic players selected for the 2022 edition and a Commonwealth Games and the T20 World Cup around the corner, could there be a change of tack from captains Harmanpreet, Mandhana and Deepti Sharma?
"This is, of course, an Indian Women's T20 Challenge, so we would want our uncapped players to go out there and play something which is very close to international cricket," Mandhana said when asked about giving more exposure to home-grown talent. "But two or three matches, I think, is a really less number of matches to give opportunities to everyone, but we all are really going to try to do that."
Deepti's chance to shine in the absence of the veterans
Deepti - switching over from Trailblazers - takes over the captaincy reins for Velocity from Mithali Raj, who, like her long-time India team-mate Jhulan Goswami, hasn't been named in any squad for the first time. The two didn't play the recent Senior Women's T20 League either, though Raj was part of champions Railways' set-up in a mentor role. Goswami didn't travel with her side, Bengal.
Their absence could be the most unambiguous affirmation yet that the end of the playing careers of two of the game's most celebrated players might be nigh. Despite both remaining tight-lipped about their retirement plans.
Also missing will be left-arm spinner Ekta Bisht and quick bowler Shikha Pandey. The latter was snubbed for the New Zealand tour and ODI World Cup earlier this year, too, which could be yet another indication of the long-term options the selectors may be looking at.
Enter the young uncapped bowlers, inexperienced capped bowlers, and also a somewhat hapless figure in Mansi Joshi. Having been pegged back by a spate of injuries since her international debut in 2016 and missing out on the 2020 edition of the Women's T20 Challenge owing to a positive Covid-19 test, the 28-year-old Joshi stands a chance to stake a claim for a reintegration into the national side.
Picked for the Supernovas, and looking in good rhythm in the nets on Sunday, Joshi has a chance to turn her fortunes around in the next six days.
Change of scene; unchanged issues with scheduling
The Women's T20 Challenge travelled from the near-empty stands of Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium in 2018 to an almost-packed Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur the following year, before finding its way to Sharjah thanks to the pandemic, and then disappearing altogether in 2021. The bandwagon has moved to Pune's Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium this time.
Besides, the tournament is being ticketed for the first time. Entry to each game is priced at a modest range of INR 100-300. The monetisation of admittance for the games is - one hopes - a sign of the BCCI trying to market the women's game and possibly testing the waters ahead of the launch of the WIPL.
What hasn't changed, though, is how skewed the tournament has been against one particular team over the past two seasons as far as turnaround time between the first two games goes: as with Velocity in 2020, Supernovas will kick off this season with a night game and play an afternoon match the following day.
"We have got four pre-tournament practice sessions this year, on consecutive days, but we'll have to curtail today's [Sunday's] a little bit because we have two back-to-back matches in as many days, and we need to give enough time for recovery," Harmanpreet said, not really expressing her displeasure, unlike Raj's more vocal pronouncement in 2020.
Time will tell if the inconsistent spacing of matches has a bearing on who takes the silverware on May 28. In the larger scheme of things, similarly, history will decide where to place the Women's T20 Challenge when the Women's IPL does become a reality. Whenever that is.

Annesha Ghosh is a freelance sports journalist. @ghosh_annesha