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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 11, March 11, 2023

As Women’s Premier League Starts, Don’t Look Back in Anger | Aparajita

Saturday 11 March 2023


As the WPL (Women’s Premier League) began on 4th of March, the mood in the women’s cricket fraternity of India was triumphant, and bullish. Countless articles exploring its potential for the women’s game and for women’s sport on a larger scale have already been written. Such is the jubilation in the popular discourse, that when I caught up with some of the girls from what I now refer to as the forgotten generation, not a single one of them permitted their names being used for this piece. Because what they have to say isn’t pretty. What they have to say isn’t something people might want to hear on the eve of such a momentously positive occasion. Their careers can best be described as the rise and fall of the bitcoin.

There exists in Indian women’s cricket a generation of players who were supposed to be the golden children of the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India). They were 14-16 years of age when the BCCI took over and well poised to be the first recipients of many good, great things- the first to have more matches, The first to have match fees, the first to have central contracts, etc. Instead, they ended up playing the prime years of their career under a BCCI that was apathetic. Fighting over whether they were entitled to the same kits and accessories as the men. Wondering if the domestic calendar will see a rise in four games and celebrating it as a victory when it did happen. In 2017, the year historians can unequivocally mark as the year Indian women’s cricket changed, these players were 26-28 years old. Still in with a chance but on the road to the end. For a generation that had been waiting for the WPL (Women’s Premier League) since the very inception of the men’s IPL in 2008, 2017 proved to be yet another and the last of many false dawns in their long wait for a boat to the promised land.

The players I interviewed participated in the last sub-junior nationals held before the BCCI brought back this format in 2023. The year was 2005, and the mood was triumphant, bullish. It was also the first sub-junior in many years to have broken the Andhra-Karnataka hegemony of finals. This is an important detail that I mention because this best exemplifies the situation that the BCCI inherited and as it exists today. The south has and will probably always remain, a powerhouse in Indian women’s cricket. A look at the player roster for the WPL also shows the relative strength of the region in terms of cricketing talent. But in 2005, there was a potential for other regions, specifically the east zone to finally fulfil its promise. This region has arguably lost the most, and in the cruellest manner in the past 18 years. That is the length of an average cricketing career.

The murmurs of discontentment centre around this missed opportunity. Says Player A, 27 years old, still hopeful of making the cut into the auction list next year- “we are all excited to have another platform to finally showcase our talent but this is a fact that if KKR (Kolkata Knight Riders) had been there, more players from east zone would have been represented.” A look at the support staff of the existing franchises reflects this regional disparity. The team with the highest eastern representation, Mumbai Indians, has a player from the east zone, Jhulan Goswami as its mentor. For many players from the east zone that did not make the final auction list, this is a repeat of an established pattern - lack of opportunities within the state and zone teams and on the fringes of the national team due to the lack of what they consider well-placed advocates from their zone to back them. Those that are still part of the BCCI system to some degrees are hopeful of one day landing a coaching gig with an IPL team. Says player B, a 33-year-old level 2 coach in charge of an eastern side, “yeah sometimes I wish we had been born 5 years later but we cannot keep looking back to the past. If we are good enough, the opportunities will come. Our teams do not regularly perform at the level that justifies better representation at these platforms.”

But this is exactly why the WPL held such promise for players. Before the WPL, there was only one route to financial security and achieving success- through the chessboard of factions within and between various zones and state teams. You either got lucky enough to get that one opportunity and grabbed it, or you did not. These are the girls that did not make it. And the cynicism seeps through in their discussions about the WPL. Player C, now 32 years old and trying to keep playing, “no matter how many IPLs come, unless you have support from the management, no girl is going to be able to do anything”. The feeling that it would take another five years and a possible expansion in franchises for the zone to see real benefit was mutually felt.

Then there are those that have left the sport due to the fatigue of waiting and the added blow of covid robbing them of the last few playing years of their life. Among them is the familiar refrain- if the WPL had started just five years ago, if only it had started just 2-3 years ago, I would not have quit. If only. When asked how they felt about the WPL starting, Player D, who retired in 2021 said- “taqleef hui (it was painful). They had been talking about this happening for years, each year we thought now it will happen, maybe this year. As a player I never got as many matches as the current generation get.” Player E said- “my heart is in a thousand pieces.” 32-year-old Player F who was forced to consider her options due to covid said- “my heart is breaking. When I heard that the WPL is starting I was shell-shocked. I had been waiting since at least 2010. Hopefully. When avenues in the state team were closing, I was hopeful the WPL would give me a chance to showcase my talent. I cannot even bear to read news about the WPL.” Part of the reason why there is such regret among them is because as they approached 30, they were shunted out of state teams and in many scenarios, forced to retire. The lack of closure that brings amplifies their feelings. This lack of closure is why so many of them are hurting right now.

Much has been made about the reaction of families of players with the start of the WPL. For these players, the reaction of their families has been adding insult to injury. While some have questioned why they gave up so “easily”, others have asked what they achieved from giving the sport so many years when they have nothing to show for it now. It’s because of this myriad of feelings among these players that all but one of them said that they would watch the WPL. For the rest, it was too painful. It would not be fair to classify these girls as a bunch of negative nellies filled with bitterness and resentment towards such an epoch-making event. There is also a sense of responsibility in their role as generational cycle breakers. Back when match fees were first introduced in women’s cricket, the game saw a huge influx of 30-something former players and railway players on the other side of 35 making a return to the game. Many of these players saw their opportunities further limited by the return of these “senior” players who were always given preference in team selections with the explanation that the younger ones had many more playing years ahead of them. When asked if they would make a return to the sport to try and break into an WPL team, they all said that they did not consider it. They do not want this cycle repeated once again.

Behind the cynicism and pain of these girls lies the unanimous conviction of the life-changing potential of the WPL. They are hurting because they came so close to achieving it. That the WPL is going to change women’s cricket forever, and possible women’s sport, is unquestionable. It is as Player C said when I told her that it does not do to dwell on the past- “the past was our future. It will take time to move on.” When the first ball is bowled in the WPL, cricket will have moved on. The future is here.

(Author: Aparajita is a former cricketer)

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