India’s WPL has captured the imagination and this is just the start

<span>Photograph: Pankaj Nangia/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Pankaj Nangia/Getty Images

Giant outdoor advertisements featuring female cricketers occupying pride of place anywhere in India is a rarity. Even more so in bustling junctures across the country’s commercial and entertainment hub, Mumbai, where time and space are ever-shrinking commodities.

But a seven-storey wallscape with an artwork of the Mumbai Indians’ trio Harmanpreet Kaur, Pooja Vastrakar and Nat Sciver-Brunt has adorned a 20-storey skyscraper near the busy Haji Ali Junction in the southern part of the western Indian city since the start of the month.

And so have billboards, featuring Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Sneh Rana, Jemimah Rodrigues and Deepti Sharma – that quintet being the cream of women’s cricket talent in the country – in places of prominence, railway stations included, in Mumbai and, some 30 kilometres away, in New Mumbai.

The reason why: the inaugural five-team Women’s Premier League (WPL), where all these established names, headlining an overall pool of 87 uncapped and international cricketers, have been in action across the two host cities, Mumbai and New Mumbai, since the tournament kicked off on 4 March.

If the 20-match league stage of the WPL, the second-most expensive cricket league in the world after the men’s marquee domestic franchise tournament, the Indian Premier League, is anything to go by, the visibility the competition has brought the women’s game in the country is unlike anything previously imagined.

Official attendances have breached 30,000, with average turnouts ranging from 9,000-13,000 for most games at the two venues staging the tournament: the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai and the DY Patil Stadium in New Mumbai, surprisingly on weekdays, too. Sure, the footfall comes as an obvious vindication of the organiser’s – the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) – decision to allow free entry for female spectators, a move aimed at boosting the number of attendees and developing a broader audience for the women’s game in the country.

The Delhi Capitals celebrate a wicket against Royal Challengers Bangalore.
The Delhi Capitals celebrate a wicket against Royal Challengers Bangalore. Photograph: Pankaj Nangia/Getty Images

The strategy was a leaf out of the success of the India v Australia women’s bilateral T20I series at the same grounds in December last year, where a record crowd of more than 47,000 showed up for the second match, at the DY Patil Stadium. But anyone who’s attended the best part of the WPL’s league stage in person these past 18 days will vouch for the fact that men consistently far outnumbered women in the stands. This, despite entry for male spectators costing INR 100 (approximately £1) and upwards.

The BCCI is yet to release any official numbers on the age or gender breakdown of the attendees, but that the Indian board has put a price on all tickets for Friday’s Eliminator between the Kaur-led Indians and Australia vice-captain Alyssa Healy’s UP Warriorz, starting at INR 50, is further proof of the impressive turnouts at the tournament. In a more unequivocal validation of the resounding on-ground reception of the tournament, the final, scheduled for Sunday where Australia captain Meg Lanning’s Delhi Capitals are assured a place, sold out by Wednesday morning, with tickets priced at INR 250.

“For me the highlight will definitely be the crowds,” said the Capitals all-rounder Marizanne Kapp, a strong shout for the player of the tournament, after bagging player of the match against Indians on Monday. “Halfway through that game, when I looked up I saw the second tier was packed and you could hear and feel [the cheer] around the field.”

Kapp is no stranger to success in overseas leagues. The 33-year-old South African has been on title-winning teams at the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) in Australia and The Hundred in England, and finished a runner-up at Cricket Hong Kong’s inaugural FairBreak Invitational tournament last year in Dubai.

“For me, personally, it’s such a proud moment for women’s cricket because never in my life would I have thought, first of all, I will be in the WPL and then women’s cricket having crowds like this,” said Kapp. “It was a massive surprise seeing how much love we get from people and fans over here. I think this competition will only go from strength to strength and it’s so good to see … all the hard work that’s been going on [in women’s cricket yielding this response].”

The England vice-captain and Indians all-rounder Sciver-Brunt echoes Kapp. “The crowds here we know are cricket-mad and I’ve experienced that a little bit when we’ve been playing for England against India but not as good as this,” said the joint-most expensive overseas player in the league. “The crowds here have been really cool.”

Attendants take a rest inside the Royal Challengers Bangalore team bus in Mumbai.
Attendants take a rest inside the Royal Challengers Bangalore team bus in Mumbai. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

While strong attendances and primetime TV slots – matches are played at 3.30pm and/or 7.30pm local time – as much as free digital streaming by media-rights owner Viacom 18 will irrefutably leave a strong imprint on the success of the first edition of the WPL, the league has not got everything spot-on in its launch year.

Take the short boundaries – measuring about 42-44 metres from the batting end in some cases. IPL matches at the DY Patil Stadium, Wankhede Stadium and Brabourne Stadium – located across Mumbai and New Mumbai – had boundary lengths at a maximum of 70 metres last season. They are understood to have been pulled in to contribute to high-scoring matches in the WPL, perhaps vindicated by several 200-plus totals put on by the five sides in the first two weeks, yet they have left many a player wanting for more discretion in terms of amping the spectacle of the women’s game. “It is nice for a batter but not so much for a bowler,” the New Zealand captain Sophie Devine, the Royal Challengers Bangalore all-rounder, had said in a pre-match interview on 6 March. Twelve days later, it was Devine who broke the record for the longest six of the tournament, with a 94-metre hit at the Brabourne Stadium during her record 36-ball 99 against Gujarat Giants.

On Tuesday, the last league day of the WPL, Sciver-Brunt, however, highlighted how the gradual slowing of the surfaces has negated some of the early advantage batters enjoyed. “I mean, they’re short, right?” she said of the boundary dimensions, smiling. “Everyone’s talked about it right at the start. But since then, it’s not really [made much of a difference]. Because the wickets have been a little bit slower or a little bit stoppy or turning or whatever it is [as the tournament has progressed], that then brings in more for the bowlers.”

The other aspect the league stage found itself somewhat wanting is the performance of Indian cricketers, internationals or otherwise. A case in point: only one uncapped domestic player – Indians left-arm spinner Saika Ishaque – features on the top 10 wicket-takers’ chart, and none among the top 10 on the highest run-scorers’ list, where Kaur and Capitals teenager Shafali Verma are the only Indian representation.

Dayalan Hemalatha of Gujarat Giants plays a shot against UP Warriorz.
Dayalan Hemalatha of Gujarat Giants plays a shot against UP Warriorz. Photograph: Pankaj Nangia/Getty Images

Beyond the immediate tangibles, the confluence of Indian and overseas talent, however, could reap long-term dividends for the women’s game in India and globally. “I think there’s two parts to my job here: one is to win games of cricket and the other is to develop young Indian cricketers,” said Jon Lewis, the England and Warriorz head coach on Tuesday.

“The fact that we were in a position where we’re able to put again a 16-year-old leg-spinner [Parshavi Chopra] out and an 18-year-old fast bowler (Soppadhandi Yashasri) out into her first game [against Capitals], I think that should really be celebrated and that’s what this competition is all about: growing young Indian cricketers and giving them an experience.”

Perhaps the only way to summarise the strides the WPL has made would be to borrow an official tournament hashtag, which, in Hindi, goes: “#YehToBasShuruatHai (This is just the beginning).”