"If they end up winning the title, they will probably do what Kapil Dev’s World Cup-winning team did for Indian cricket in 1983. And they will become superstars.”
These were the words of WV Raman, the Indian women’s team head coach, before the side left for the T20 World Cup in Australia. After 22 matches spanning over 13 days, India have the chance to create history when they take on defending champions and four-time winners Australia in Melbourne on Sunday. From perennial underachievers to contenders, it has been quite a journey for the Women in Blue.
For the hosts, a triumph will be a fifth trophy in their cabinet. For India, it may mean more. After years of being in the shadow of Australia and England, Harmanpreet Kaur & Co — the first Asian team to reach the summit clash of the event — have a chance to change the fortunes of women’s cricket in the country. To say that a win will be the dawn of a new era is far from an exaggeration.
Win something big before you ask for more. An unsaid rule in sports. India do not have to look beyond their opponents for inspiration. A decade worth of domination — they won all world titles between 2010 and 2015 — saw Australian women come out victorious in their battle for equal pay, in 2017. Now they have the same base pay as their male counterparts, after an MoU was inked with the Australian Cricketers’ Association.
Over a five-year period, elite female cricketers’ pay has increased from $7.5m to $55m. On the other hand, only after reaching a historic final in the 2017 World Cup did BCCI announce a new contract system — next March — for the women’s team. It was only the second time that the richest cricket board had announced one for women (after 2015-16).
It isn’t comparable with what Virat Kohli & Co get (Rs 7 crore for players in A+ category), let alone Meg Lanning & Co. But a jump from Rs 15 lakh to Rs 50 lakh was still something. This also sparked many changes in the team’s set-up, putting in place a full-fledged support unit that included a physiotherapist and nutritionist. Considering the significant strides the women have taken since the 2017 World Cup — which saw them earn a potential world-beater tag — the calls to increase their pay has assumed more relevance.
“With Sourav Ganguly at the helm, an increase should be in the pipeline,” remarks Syed Kirmani, a notable name from the class of 1983 that changed men’s cricket in the country. “They should be treated equally, and rewarded according to seniority and number of matches they play. Women’s cricket deserves a look-in.”
One among the factors behind this gulf in pay is lack of sponsors. In this context, a World Cup will not only see the women etch their names in cricketing annals, but also catalyse more investment — a tale that will mirror the narrative of 1983.
“A title will help women’s cricket grow in India,” acknowledges Madan Lal, another alumnus of that history-making 1983 bunch. “The number of girls taking up the sport will multiply manifold. There will be more tournaments. Growth will be visible after winning a big tournament. This will pave the way for more crowds. They might get more sponsorships. These are things that matter. You need sponsors for the team to be looked after well.”
Not long ago, the likes of Mithali Raj and Smriti Mandhana had talked about being paid from the profits the game generates. Naturally, the India ODI skipper added the caveat of “marketing”, the next step after the game’s permeation of public consciousness over the past few years. In the last home series, in 2019 against South Africa, Surat had seen around 15,000 turn up for the matches. The mini women’s IPL — in Jaipur last May — witnessed a similar footfall. Those matches were free to attend, but the numbers aptly showcase the potential that a robust marketing scaffolding can tap into.
This is where this World Cup could change things. A win will see hoardings not be restricted only to the likes of Virat and Rohit Sharma. Front-page pictures and reports bring in tow both monetary and intangible benefits. Such momentum could also start a “pay to watch women’s cricket” movement in the country, in line with the landscape of Australia, England and New Zealand.
“As far as crowds are concerned, they are gradually picking up,” observes Kirmani. “Let the host association put a price on entry and see how many turn up. They can experiment with that. If that is successful and people are ready to pay and watch women’s cricket, then matches can be ticketed.”
A World Cup win can also do wonders for the country’s next generation. The Indian men’s team are a perfect example. At a time when they were grappling with a new format in the form of T20, MS Dhoni-led them to win in the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007. This gave birth to the Indian Premier League.
The effect the event has had — and is still having — on upcoming talent needs no explanation.
When it comes to women, not all states have U-16 tournaments. For a team that boasts the likes of Shafali Verma and Jemimah Rodrigues, unearthing players at age-group levels and nurturing them should be the way forward.
“It is only in the South — like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra, Telangana, Kerala, and Goa — that U-16 tournaments at the state level are held,” said Purnima Rau, former India player and coach. “This started 10, 12 years ago. We have a larger base here. Having said that, even Himachal has academies for 365 days, and those are producing results. Most states are playing around the year, but we are not sure how many U-16 events are being conducted. If BCCI puts in place more age-level tournaments, it will yield results. We will get many more Shafalis. Once we start young, the World Cup process becomes easy.”
Funding and support, in the context of building a team, shouldn’t be completely dictated by win-loss ratios. For instance, after their million-dollar boost in 2017, Australia lost both the ICC titles they held. But the financial backing did not stop.
“A World Cup win will encourage youngsters in any country. And not only that, it’ll be a global uprising. The most important aspect is focus on mofussil areas, from where we get talent. It’s (World Cup) a huge platform to inspire kids. It is not just about the finals, but also about the way it has been marketed by ICC. Our team has done so well, it will inspire the next generation.”
"The final at Melbourne Cricket Ground is set to witness a record crowd; 75,000 tickets have been sold. Sunday also coincides with International Women’s Day, with the theme for the year being “I am generation equality — Realizing women’s rights”. Australia have been the flag-bearer for one such movement. Fingers crossed that on her 31st birthday, Harmanpreet will lead her team to another such revolution."