Just over a decade ago, in February 2008, the Indian men’s team played a Twenty20 international against an Australian side they had beaten en route to glory in South Africa months earlier. It was a forgettable, one-sided game, with Adam Gilchrist and Australia romping home after a dismal Indian collapse.
In the hours leading up to that match, the stands at the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground filled up slowly in the summer heat. And as part of the plan to popularize the women’s game, Australia and England played out a Twenty20.
Unlike the men’s match, this was a proper contest, one illuminated by a teenager who was just breaking through. Ellyse Perry was 17 at the time, with braces on her teeth, and her giggling enthusiasm charmed everyone. But that was just one side of it. On the field, she bowled fast, fielded superbly and hit a straight six with a nonchalance that evoked gasps from the thousands watching.
On Tuesday (May 22) afternoon, at the Wankhede Stadium, Perry played for the Supernovas as they clinched a last-ball thriller against the Trailblazers in an exhibition game aimed at testing the waters for a future women’s Indian Premier League (IPL). In that decade, Perry’s talent and personality have been central to the start of a woman’s Big Bash League (WBBL) in Australia. She has already featured in the Kia Super League, its English counterpart. Only the women’s IPL box remains to be ticked.
The lack of an audience on Tuesday – there were less than a thousand people in the stands to see the tense climax – shouldn’t be the barometer to judge the progress the women’s game has made. This exhibition was almost an afterthought, planned and arranged in haste. The entry rules dictated that if you wanted to watch the Chennai-Hyderabad IPL game later in the evening, you’d have to be inside the stadium for nearly ten hours. With the temperature crossing 30C and the extreme humidity making it feel like it was closer to 40C, that wasn’t an appealing prospect.
What we saw on the field showed just how far we’ve come in a decade. Perry is now one of the senior eminences. The teenager from whom so much is expected is Jemimah Rodrigues, the local girl who played a chancy knock but also fielded with a vigour not normally associated with Indian cricket.
The stunning catches that Harmanpreet Kaur and Veda Krishnamurthy took at the start of the Trailblazers innings also made you think back to the World Cup India hosted in 2013, when so much of India’s cricket seemed stuck in the 20th century in terms of fitness and athleticism. What the WBBL and the Super League in England have done is raise the bar in terms of preparation, professionalism and performance, and even the girls who haven’t played any part are imbibing the lessons from those that have.
But in the feel-good atmosphere around the event, it’s important not to lose sight of ground realities. Back in 2008, twinning men’s and women’s matches was a good idea. It worked well for the ICC at the World Twenty20 too. But if the women’s leagues are ever to thrive, the piggyback culture needs to stop. The ODIs that the Indian women recently played in Vadodara showed they could pull in the crowds. If that means moving matches, and even exhibitions, to non-metropolitan venues, so be it.
You also don’t contemplate a penthouse without getting the basement right first. The early years of the IPL were typified by a swathe of players who weren’t cut out for it. Each team had one or two Indian players who were way out of their depth at that level. With just four foreigners allowed in each playing XI, there simply wasn’t enough quality to go around.
The situation now is so very different. Each franchise could field two competitive XIs, such is the depth in Indian men’s cricket. At the moment, there aren’t more than 15 to 20 women who could compete on equal terms with the best in the business. Rather than start an IPL-like tournament when there’s no depth in the playing ranks, it makes far more sense to arrange exhibitions with three or four teams, and use them to grow interest in the women’s game.
You could easily stage them during the gaps in the IPL schedule, and get the broadcasters and the marquee male players to promote it. And once a pathway is in place for more Jemimahs to emerge, you can ponder a women’s IPL. A decade ago, Perry and her teammates weren’t much better off than India’s women cricketers. Cricket Australia’s desire to change the narrative was what transformed women’s cricket. The broadcasters and fans also played along.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League came into being in 1943, in a scenario where the cream of the baseball crop had been called up to fight in WW II. It lasted just over a decade, folding in 1954, and inspired the cult movie, A League of Their Own.
That’s precisely what India’s women need. But to get there, we need small, decisive steps and not short-term fixes. The game at the Wankhede was a start. It remains to be seen how we build on it.