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WPL - the start of something unusually usual for women's cricket in India

The first real signs of professionalism are starting to seep into the women's cricket structure in the country

S Sudarshanan
S Sudarshanan
Royal Challengers Bangalore Women prepare for WPL 2023, Bengaluru, February 27, 2023

Royal Challengers Bangalore Women prepare for WPL 2023  •  PTI

It was unusually usual.
England's Alice Capsey, Australia's Laura Harris and USA's Tara Norris were swarmed by journalists on the sidelines of a Delhi Capitals event in Mumbai ahead of the inaugural Women's Premier League. A large number of media people gathering around players is not unusual in Indian cricket. But it is for women's cricket.
This could be the 'new normal' for most of the 87 players that are part of five teams in the WPL for a large part of March. That the nuts and bolts of the tournament have been put together inside the best part of one and a half months is atypical for one with the magnitude of the WPL. The auction for media rights was held in mid-January which was then followed by bidding for teams at the end of the month. The player auction was then held in mid-February, barely a fortnight after the five franchises were confirmed.
Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians were among the first teams to already have a scouting network in place. RCB zeroed in on Ben Sawyer as head coach, who in director of cricket Mike Hesson's words, has been "bandied around by a number of people, a number of different countries as an expert in the field of women's cricket." Sawyer was assistant coach of Australia when they won the Women's World Cup last year and was head coach when he guided New Zealand to a bronze-medal finish at the Commonwealth Games. Former England captain Charlotte Edwards, another successful coach in women's game, was locked in by Mumbai.
The inaugural WPL will start just six days after the end of the T20 World Cup. That isn't give a whole lot of time for the players to settle into brand new teams and figure out how they work together. Heck, some of them have only just arrived into the country.
Australia's title-winning captain Meg Lanning landed in Mumbai on Thursday morning, only hours before the start of the event in which she was named Capitals' captain. Their key allrounder, South Africa's Marizanne Kapp, touched down only later in the day.
"That's the biggest challenge," Lanning said. "We have got players from all over India and all around the world coming together in a very short space of time. I think the key is getting to know each other away from cricket - we spend a bit of time at training but also the time at the hotel and events like this - what they like doing what they don't like doing. Once you get that right, the on-field stuff takes care of itself."
Understandably team-bonding activities have been at the forefront of most sides. Mumbai shared how their players indulged in playing UNO while Gujarat Giants created reels using popular songs.
"This is the beauty - you have very less time and you have to be on the spot," Mumbai captain Harmanpreet said. "Everyone has been playing cricket for so many years. The only thing [different] is that we are going to play with different players. Sport is something which gives you so much confidence when you are friendly with your team-mates. Knowing each other gives you a lot of confidence on the field. Team activity is helping us a lot to know each other."
The WPL teams began their training camps with largely the Indian domestic players and the overseas ones that were not part of the T20 World Cup. While Mumbai, Capitals, Giants and UP Warriorz used various grounds around Mumbai, Royal Challengers worked out on their home turf at the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bengaluru before landing in Mumbai on Wednesday. Mumbai even held a couple of intra-squad matches over the week, giving them a better idea about the abilities of the players at their disposal.
Edwards leans on batting coach Devika Palshikar and mentor and bowling coach Jhulan Goswami for their inputs on local players as well as helping her communicate better with the Indian players. Jonathan Batty, Capitals' head coach, has assistant coach Hemalata Kala and fielding coach Biju George who know the Indians in the set-up well.
"I have embraced the challenge of coming over here and not knowing a lot of people but getting to know the players has been truly wonderful," Edwards said. "Jhulan and Devika have been instrumental in helping me with India domestic players and they have a lot of knowledge of those players. I've been very impressed by the young talent we have got in Mumbai. If I can get the best of the young players in this squad, it'll make Harman's job a lot easier."
Familiarity between players and coaches can make things a tad easier. In the Women's Big Bash League last year, Batty coached Melbourne Stars for whom both Jemimah Rodrigues and Alice Capsey played. All three are part of the Capitals now. Batty also led the Oval Invincibles that had Kapp in it to back-to-back titles in the women's Hundred.
Sawyer has coached Sydney Sixers, for whom Ellyse Perry and Erin Burns play. All of them are part of Royal Challengers now. Sawyer is also the head coach of New Zealand, who are led by Sophie Devine, also of RCB. It is the first time Rachael Haynes is coaching a side, but she has her former Australia team-mates Beth Mooney (as captain), Ashleigh Gardner, Georgia Wareham and Annabel Sutherland in the Giants squad to work with. Jon Lewis at Warriorz will have a couple of familiar faces in Lauren Bell and Sophie Ecclestone.
"I think it's just about owning your area of expertise," Sawyer said about coming together as a group in a time crunch. "They're all experts in their area. As a head coach, it's my responsibility to bring all that together, but I really want them to stand up and enter and own their own area.
"I was a teacher before I was a coach. And it's really that learning aspect, that's really important. Whatever happens within the competition, these girls [should] get something out of working with us. And if they can do that at every franchise they go to or every competition they're ever involved in, then they're going to come back to RCB next season as even better cricketers and that's what we always want."
These are perhaps the first real signs of professionalism starting to seep into the women's cricket structure in India. Without such a robust competition, India have been able to be among top contenders in global tournaments. The WPL could probably empower them to finally win that elusive World Cup.

S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo