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Feature

WPL - a league long overdue, and already making dreams come true

Even before a ball has been bowled, the potential impact on women's cricket in India is plain to see

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
03-Mar-2023
Even before a ball has been bowled, the WPL has begun to have a transformative effect on the landscape of women's cricket in India.
In 2012, a 16-year-old R Kalpana, a prolific batter in age-group cricket for Andhra, considered quitting the game. Her father, an autorickshaw driver, wanted his daughter to "settle down" and made preparations for her wedding. For him, marriage was one way for Kalpana to avoid economic hardship.
When MSK Prasad, the former India wicketkeeper and Andhra's then director of cricket, found out, he spent months convincing Kalpana's parents that she could have a successful cricket career. In 2015, he proudly watched Kalpana receive her India cap from Mithali Raj.
But when Prasad moved on to become national selector, Kalpana lost her way. After seven ODIs and a handful of tour games, she was back to the domestic grind. With fewer opportunities to improve her game, she retired last year at the age of 25.
Today, Kalpana is determined to ensure that young girls coming through the ranks don't suffer the same fate she did. She mentors young girls in Andhra, like Prasad did all those years ago. Among them is Shabnam Shakil, who at 15 will be one of the youngest players in the inaugural Women's Premier League (WPL) starting March 4.
Unlike Kalpana, Shabnam has a different story. Her ambition has been fuelled by hope of a brighter future for women's cricket in India. Encouraging results on the international stage, increased exposure, and improved age-group structures has her excited. Her parents now want her to play and train more.
"My mother initially thought of putting me into dance, but it didn't work out," Shabnam says. "That is when my dad suggested I could try playing cricket, just like he did."
In her first two days with her new franchise, Gujarat Giants, Shabnam has already learned different methods to cope with pressure, different batting techniques for turning surfaces, core exercises to improve pace, and the importance of biomechanics. She's also been part of workshops about financial management designed to help young players manage money, and most importantly, she's had access to top international talent in Rachael Haynes and Raj.
Over the previous fortnight, there have been many such examples of players benefitting from the opportunities created for them by the WPL.
Where else could Asha Shobana, a struggling legspinner at 30, have showcased her talent outside the nets of her state team? She was identified by Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) through their hinterland scouting programme, long before they dreamt of owning a WPL franchise.
A specially developed Artificial Intelligence tool highlighted key aspects of Shobana's bowling action - uniqueness, high-arm, pivot, wrist position, release and followthrough - and shortlisted her among a pool of players the RCB coaches were keen on looking at.
When Shobana bowled her legbreaks in her first practice match with the team, they knew she was special. And when her name came up at the auction, RCB snapped her up. On Friday, she was bowling alongside Dane van Niekerk, learning from Heather Knight and dancing with Ellyse Perry.
Shobana's team-mate Shreyanka Patil is 20 and her goal is to play for India by 2025. Shreyanka trains eight hours a day, and has already made massive sacrifices, like moving out of her parents' home and living by herself in the outskirts of Bengaluru, so that she is closer to her training facility and doesn't spend long hours commuting.
Five years ago Minnu Mani, a woman from the Kurichiya tribe in the Wayanad district of Kerala, was on the verge of giving up the game because of financial problems. However, she was inspired by the rise of a teenager from Rohtak who could hit the ball like few could. That 15-year-old, Shafali Verma, went on to represent India the following year and is today an Under-19 World Cup winning captain. Mani and Verma are now team-mates at Delhi Capitals.
In 2018, when her family's one-room home with an asbestos roof was damaged by rain and had to be rebuilt, Mani vowed to help out through playing cricket, though she knew that earnings from the women's domestic circuit were modest. Her father, a daily-wage worker, discouraged her from playing a "boy's sport", but Mani believed that if Verma could, she could too.
It is this dream that fuels her long commutes because Mani isn't as fortunate as Shreyanka. She changes four buses to get to the training facility at the Krishnagiri Stadium in Wayanad. It's hard work, but the hours have been worth it. When Delhi Capitals signed her for INR 30 lakh (USD 37,000 approx) - "money I've not seen in my life" - Mani knew she could make the big investment she has been dreaming of.
"It will help me complete my house, and also help me buy a two-wheeler so that I can avoid the long commute by buses to the ground," she says. "That extra time I can spend to train and get better. I love batting and want to keep scoring runs. Who knows, if I do well in the WPL, the India dream may not be far away."
For a while, the BCCI had cited India's small talent pool of women cricketers for the delay in launching the WPL. That pool is already widening.
"We already saw with [the WPL's precursor] the T20 Challenge, even though it was just four games or something, the effect it had on the Indian uncapped players," says Mamatha Maben, the former India captain. "In domestic cricket there's a tendency for players to go with set plans. They aren't thinking for themselves.
"Now, with more and more exposure to international players, coaches and modern methods, players will become more aware. Imagine those who have this exposure now, when they go back and share their knowledge and perspective with their peers, the trickle-down effect it will have on domestic cricket will be massive. So it's already a massive success."
But Maben's optimism comes with a rider. She hopes that some of the vast sums of money the BCCI has earned from the WPL will be invested into the women's game for it to trickle down to the grassroots and have a wider effect. Currently, a woman cricketer who plays every game for her senior state team earns between INR 2.5-3 lakh (USD 3000-3600 approx.) for the entire season, while the lowest contract for a WPL player is INR 10 lakh (USD 12,200 approx).
"We talk of matching Australia's standards - while the exposure will no doubt help bridge the gap, the BCCI should also incentivise state players to ensure there is no talent drain," Maben says. "This is the chance to ensure our lower structures are strong."
It is likely that the emergence of the WPL will give a lifeline to women who may have been on the verge of giving up their cricketing careers earlier than their male counterparts.
Sneh Rana contemplated quitting the game in 2019. She hadn't played for India since 2016, and doubted her own abilities until a breakout domestic season prompted her comeback at 27. Today, she's vice-captain of Gujarat Giants in the WPL.
When she was dropped after just one series for India in 2013, Sneha Deepthi knew making an international comeback would be tough. In 2021 she had a baby, and in the majority of such cases, cricket becomes afterthought. That same year, however, she managed to return to training with the hope of playing domestic cricket. Though she might not be close to an India comeback yet, Deepthi earned a gig with Delhi Capitals because of her batting abilities.
Now, like so many other women who toil anonymously in domestic cricket, Deepthi will have a chance to learn from the world's best, and to shine in front of millions.
"I personally feel it's a great platform to know overseas players and take something from their experience," says India and Mumbai Indians captain Harmanpreet Kaur. "When I first played the WBBL and the Hundred, the amount of experience and confidence I got from there, the same amount of confidence I want our domestic players to get. It entirely changed my life."
The WPL is only just beginning, but it has already shown the tremendous potential it has to transform women's cricket in India, and the lives of many who previously struggled to realise their dreams.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo