In cricket, nothing is done till it is actually done, and this holds true for the women’s IPL (WIPL). According to BCCI President Sourav Ganguly, the league is now finally set to launch some time next year, but plenty of boxes have to be ticked before umpires call ‘play’ on that opening game and the match begins.
First, the skeptics need to be reassured that the time has finally come for women to play franchise-based, market-driven commercial cricket. The signs are positive with recent traction for women cricket, quality players coming through to catch our attention and greater media interest surrounding the Indian team in the ICC World Cup.
Yet, there are genuine concerns. The overall quality of play isn’t exciting, the pool of cricketers in India is too small, bench strength at the national level is thin and the participation level in states is far from encouraging.
So, the big question is: do you wait for the talent pool to grow, or should you have the IPL to create the pool?
The BCCI is committed to build on the current momentum and follow what Australia and England have successfully done. CPL too has announced similar plans and Pakistan has also decided to go ahead with their own women's T20 league.
But, Who Will Own The Teams?
Given India’s enormous cricket economy, finding six buyers to own franchise teams should not be difficult but the BCCI needs to resolve key issues. Should the WIPL be an off-shoot of the main IPL or a separate, stand-alone business?
Getting existing IPL teams to build women’s teams is an easy option but a simple invite to current owners could be viewed as an anti-market, restrictive move. What if someone doesn’t want a team and what happens if an outsider is willing to pay more. In that situation would a ‘right to match’ option solve the problem?
Ideally, WIPL must stand on its own feet, discarding the crutches the main IPL can hand out. But this path could be financially slippery because the economic value of media rights, the spine of any sporting venture, is uncertain and it is difficult to judge how the market would react to this product.
The Economics Behind the League
Till now women’s cricket is funded/subsidised by the BCCI, the market is not in the equation at all. Team India women games are not ticketed, their media rights are not sold separately and they don’t have their own sponsors. The economics is not heartening considering the highest annual retainer contract for women is Rs 50 lakh, which is half of the lowest Rs 1 crore contract for the male players.
Considering this, will the BCCI do what Australia has done with their BBL and the WBBL, which is to fund and operate all teams, and disallow all private ownership or involvement.
Ultimately, WIPL is about promoting the sport, not about returning a cash positive balance sheet. The competitive nature of the league will encourage more young girls to take to cricket and create future stars and role models.
To Continue With '3 Overseas Players Only' Formula?
Sorting out the tricky financial construct is only one challenge because there are other issues too. Despite the scarcity of quality of Indian players the IPL's ‘7 Indians in the eleven’ should continue because the whole point is to develop Indian talent and provide it a platform to perform. It would be tempting to open additional slots for foreign players but this would be incorrect from a political and cricket standpoint.
But it is a tricky call: foreign stars bring quality but use up slots available for Indian players.
Finding a Window
Among other matters that need to be ticked, the WIPL must create a window for itself. Scheduling can be a headache given bilateral commitments, regular ICC tournaments and the mushrooming leagues in other countries. The simple solution would be to run WIPL together with the IPL — this has worked for the WBBL and the Hundred.
Soon, top women players could hop from one event to the other, like the men. Whether, and when, this happens it is sure the WIPL will be a new dawn for established Indian players. In any free market WIPL, Mithali Raj/Harmanpreet/Smriti Mandhana together with Shafali, Jemimah, Pooja Vastrakar, Yastika Bhatia will be hugely sought after, triggering a new phase of women cricket growth and setting it on a rising commercial trajectory.
New Avenues for Indian Experts
The WIPL will create opportunities for coaches/mentors/brand ambassadors/commentators/match referees and other ancillary roles. Till now, the BCCI has rejected all requests to allow Indian players to play in overseas T 20 leagues but with women cricket they have adopted a more pragmatic approach. Indian players are already in the WBBL and the Hundred and going forward the same trend should continue.
So, is the WIPL the silver/golden bullet to improve women’s cricket? Surely, it is not a wonder drug that will solve all problems, more like an effective energy boosting dose that helps wellness. The WIPL should not be seen as a one-shot overall cure and must be accompanied by other steps to ensure women’s cricket achieves its full potential.
Topping this to-do list is state associations should give it more priority, not treat it as an additional activity to be organised. More resources for facilities/training/support staff have to be deployed and young girls attracted to pick up a bat.
At the BCCI level there is a desperate need to introduce a red ball tournament — at present Indian women only play 20 and 50 over games. First class cricket with 3-day matches will create depth and a strong supply chain, from junior levels leading up to the Indian team. This is an urgent reform because currently the Indian team plays Tests — without any preparation whatsoever.