The 2017 Women’s World Cup in England triggered a revolution for women’s cricket in India. Almost overnight, the women had garnered more supporters, attracted more young girls and received more attention than they had all through the last decade. Of course, their performances on the world stage warranted the recognition, but for those involved in the game, the spotlight took some getting used to.
Soon after the team’s return from England, there were questions thrown around about the possibility of a women’s T20 league the following year. Was India ready? Was the time right? Did they have the resources? So many questions, with no clear or satisfying answers.
The team’s first home series after the World Cup was a bit of a disaster — they were mauled by Australia in an ODI series in Vadodara, and then faced the wrath of England and Australia in a T20I tri-series in Mumbai. Arguments against the launch of a T20 league strengthened: ‘lack of depth’ was the main excuse.
However, a few months later, the BCCI decided to host an IPL-style T20 match for the women. On 22 May 2018, 26 women from India, Australia, England and New Zealand took part in the first Women’s T20 Exhibition match in Mumbai. Whether it was a success or not was debatable (the empty stadium leaving a bad taste in the mouth), but the game itself was very entertaining — a last-ball finish in which Harmanpreet Kaur’s Supernovas reigned supreme. It served as a good advertisement for the women’s game, especially with much of the world watching.
2018-19 has been a season of transformation for India with many young girls being given a chance at the international level: Jemimah Rodrigues, Pooja Vastrakar, Taniya Bhatia, Radha Yadav, Arundhati Reddy, Hemalatha Dayalan, Harleen Deol, and Bharati Fulmali have all made their international debuts during this period. While the team has shown the ability to dominate various opposition at the highest level, their performances have been largely inconsistent with heavy reliance on a couple of players.
The 2019 edition of the Women’s T20 Challenge held between 6-11 May in Jaipur showcased women’s cricket in the best and most competitive light. It indicated that things can change quickly for Indian cricket if talent is identified and nurtured. Much good has come of this four-match tournament. For one, it has proved that India is ready for a full-fledged T20 league. There are enough players to form at least four or five competitive teams, and the public is certainly keen to watch.
New names come to the fore
For a while now there have been many arguments about the lack of depth in Indian women’s cricket. In her very first innings of the Women’s T20 Challenge, 15-year-old Shafali Verma shattered that opinion. The right-hander’s 31-ball 34 that included five fours and one towering six displayed not only her extraordinary power, but also gave a peek into the untapped resources lying in India’s cupboard.
Shafali seemed unfazed by the spotlight, and batted fearlessly, going after some of the best bowlers in the world. Although the opener managed only 47 runs in three innings, they came at an impressive strike rate of nearly 115. On a slow surface where most batters struggled to get going, her strokeplay was undoubtedly the standout of the tournament.
While Shafali possessed the power, Harleen Deol, Trailblazer’s top order batter exhibited flair and finesse as she collected 79 runs in two innings. The right-hander’s solid temperament, ability to drop anchor, and accelerate at the latter part of her innings showed a great deal of maturity.
Sushree Dibyadarshini, Radha Yadav, Priya Punia and Komal Zanzad all showed glimpses of their ability to succeed at the highest level. Of course, none of these names, barring Radha, displayed any kind of consistency, but one can expect improvements with continued exposure.
There is much talent in the domestic ranks, but what the girls need is the time and opportunity to develop their skills. As opposed to 20-25 years ago where the circuit was far more competitive, domestic cricket no longer serves as a ‘finishing school’ for the players.
This year’s Women’s T20 Challenge gave young Indian players an opportunity to learn from the very best: Harleen got a peek into the mind of Suzie Bates, Reddy rubbed shoulders with Natalie Sciver and Sophie Devine, while Shafali batted alongside Danielle Wyatt.
Learning from the best
One of the things that became apparent during the 2018 Women’s T20 World Cup in the Caribbean was the chasm that had developed between Australia and the rest of the world. In fact, despite the presence of superstars like Meg Lanning, Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy, it was the performances of Sophie Molineux, Georgia Wareham and Ashleigh Gardner that were most impressive. The trio seemed to revel under pressure— each one playing a key role in Australia’s march to victory.
Their performances made clear the positive impact the Women’s Big Bash League has had on Australian cricket— it has helped make the transition from domestic to international cricket that much easier.
England, too, are moving in the right direction in this regard. The Women’s Cricket Super League that began in 2016 has seen the rise of a new crop of international stars including Sophie Ecclestone, Kirstie Gordon, Linsey Smith and Sophia Dunkley.
Indian players, on the other hand, have had trouble making the jump from domestic to international cricket, barring a few exceptions. After a 3-0 loss to England in the T20I series in Guwahati earlier this year, Smriti Mandhana, stand-in captain, said, “There is a huge gap between international and domestic cricket. That gap needs to be lessened. Our domestic circuit needs to step up.”
Training camps for all age groups, more domestic matches, and India A tours are all possible solutions. Investing at the grassroots level is essential for the standard of domestic cricket to improve, but it will require time. However, a Women’s IPL could serve as a quick fix. The chance for young Indian players to share the dressing room with overseas professionals will be the best way to learn. Getting a chance to watch them train, see how they deal with different match situations, and interact with them as teammates will allow the youngsters to develop their games as well.
As Frances Mackay, New Zealand allrounder tweeted: “Training and playing with the best players has such a positive impact on your game. The ability to lean on others experience and ask questions of the best speeds up learning and development also.”
This is so true. Training and playing with the best players has such a positive impact on your game. The ability to lean on others experience and ask questions of the best speeds up learning and development also. https://t.co/tKKc8F3UYN
— Frances Mackay (@FrankieMac71) May 8, 2019
Playing under lights and in front of big crowds
In 2016, India crashed out of the T20 World Cup at home. They struggled under pressure in front of big crowds and under lights.
In 2017, India froze under the spotlight once again, going down by nine runs against England in the World Cup final at Lord’s. As the finish line neared, and the world cheered on, India, stumbled and fell hard on their face.
In 2018, although India looked more comfortable in front of the large crowds, they faltered in a crunch game yet again — losing to England in the semi-finals of the World T20 in Antigua. It was India’s first match under lights since 2016; they didn’t fare particularly well.
As rare are they are in women’s cricket, most players don’t experience playing night games/ under lights until they reach the international stage. Spotting the ball when it’s coming from the lights takes some getting used to. What the 2019 Women’s T20 Challenge has done is give the women a chance to experience the lights, crowds and pressures of the big stage, but all of it in a domestic tournament.
The final of the tournament took place in front of a crowd of more than 13,000 people. It was a close match, there was pressure, but the women lifted their game. After the shoddy fielding on display during the group matches, both teams showed a great deal of improvement in the final. Hayley Matthews’ catch to dismiss Kaur in the last over of the chase epitomised that.
Putting their hands up
During the 2019 Women’s T20 Challenge, Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana looked to be playing at a different level as compared to the rest. Both have experience playing in these foreign T20 leagues, and their games have clearly benefitted from it. In fact, Mandhana whose 67-ball 90 in the first game led Trailblazers to a two-run win over the more fancied Supernovas, has spoken about how the KSL helped make her a more confident T20 player. Kaur, too, has acknowledged the impact of the WBBL and WCSL on her game.
Through the tournament, the Indian T20I captain batted with an aura that no other Indian player — including Mandhana — commands. She exuded confidence and believed that she could overhaul any target set by the opposition.
Kaur made this clear during her unbeaten innings of 46 against Trailblazers in the opening match where she carted Jhulan Goswami for 17 runs in the final over. In the final too, with the run rate climbing, Kaur batted with a scary calmness. Her commanding presence at the crease was enough to force the Velocity bowlers into making mistakes; and when they faltered, she made sure to take full toll.
Clearly, this was the experience of having been there and done that — it was an old pro at work.
Aside from Mandhana and Kaur, the remaining Indian players too, had their moments in the sun. R Kalpana’s calmness in the first match stood out when she ran to the stump and whipped off the bails at the striker’s end to dismiss Lea Tahuhu and give Trailblazers a close win.
Taniya Bhatia’s fantastic glove-work through the tournament, and particularly her stumping of Veda Krishnamurthy in the final, was world-class. Sushma Verma’s wonderful knock in the final, Shikha Pandey’s consistency with the new ball and improvement with her death bowling, Radha Yadav’s accuracy, Shafali’s explosive batting and Harleen’s maturity are all wonderful news for Indian cricket.
That the newer and less celebrated players put their hands up and played key roles for their teams through the tournament is what is most exciting about the 2019 Women’s T20 Challenge. The tournament has provided the opportunity for Indian players to learn from the best, showcase their skill and continue to get better. That is something that will build competition for places within the squad, and in turn, raise the standard of cricket in India.
Looking a little further into the future, the tournament has served as a testing ground for India hopefuls — with the 2020 T20 World Cup just around the corner, the girls have made their mark.