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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

With IPL Challenge proposal, women’s cricket has its Steffi Graf moment

With Indian and Australian boards set to tussle to enlist the talent for their respective T20 showpieces which will clash, it's time for the women to let money decide where they will head.

Written by Shivani Naik | Updated: August 4, 2020 3:15:58 pm
It’s not just a simple matter of making Harmanpreet Kaur Smriti Mandhana forsake their Big Bash dreams. (Source: File)

The world’s top women cricketers have two of the strongest cricket boards exactly where they would want them — jockeying to enlist their talent for T20 games at the exact same time in a year shorn of live sporting action.

With the BCCI announcing dates for their Women’s IPL Challenge – a cobbled up three-team competition running over 4 matches in a week – and the Indian board’s UAE quickie clashing with the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia, women cricketers can be said to have finally arrived.

The power to command their talent of course still lies with the two boards – Indian players will be contractually obligated to show up in the shorter and somewhat half-baked ‘WIPL’ pilot episode that’s now in its second season.

And the star-studded Australians, who won their fifth T20 world crown beating India in the finals, will perhaps be forced to play out their well-settled and well-followed women’s Big Bash.

The prized NOC piece of paper has been used by every cricket board across the world to dictate employment terms and where they can travel to, to make their fortune. It is expected to be used to stop the three Indians who might have headed to WBBL. That Australia had withheld its top names likewise last year is a ready ruse.

It will never be known why when schedules are yet to be drawn up and it’s a matter of 4 matches coinciding with IPL (September 19 – November 8), the Women’s Challenge (November 1-10) cannot be held before October 17 when the WBBL starts. The IPL has excellent TV numbers throughout its duration, and can easily allow women to hog focus nearing the start of the edition in September rather than club it with the decisive stage of the men’s game.

READ | IPL 2020: Desert Odyssey dates out

But prior commitments of three top Team India women’s players are not important enough to be honoured clearly.
So as things stand, here’s the opportunity to take women’s cricket a notch higher from merely accepting “visibility” piggybacking on the men’s game — the opening act to the men’s Playoffs. For it is also a chance for the three players to negotiate for competing pay packets so that the BCCI respectfully offers WIPL wages that decidedly outdo the figures on contracts, who might otherwise have winded up playing the Big Bash.

These are two boards — wielding uneven financial power and coyly engaged in a routine power-play BCCI and CA are long known for. There is the matter of the Australians withholding their players from last year’s IPL exhibitions. And who is to stop the Indian board from returning the snub, with cackling interest. Sourav Ganguly has always enjoyed making the Australians wait and the women’s IPL began with his innings as BCCI president. So the WBBL can wait.

But here’s the thing — why should women cricketers from both countries have to choose between two boards playing their own little games, when they could play in both leagues and double the pay? Especially in a rough season for sportspersons to make money.

Professional sport will always be measured in money. And in a financially dire year allround, why must the athletes who will be in demand in both leagues if the standard is to be maintained – be it at Sydney or Dubai – not push for competing bidding prices for their services in their contracts? IPL revels in buying players with unabashed jingling of gold every year at the men’s auctions. The Aussies are thorough sporting professionals who understand that women’s cricket is not just a sideshow hobby but a dedicated vocation for its practitioners who deserve to be paid handsome fees to light up their league.

Shafali Varma is still far too young to realise how coveted her presence might be in both Australia and in India’s UAE edition. (Source: File)

It’s not just a simple matter of making Harmanpreet and Jemimah Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana forsake their Big Bash dreams — and at this moment, it’s certainly a more full-fledged league than whatever BCCI has planned. For women professionals from across the world – the English women, the West Indians, South Africans, and New Zealanders – this is the moment to demand for women’s cricket what it always deserved: top-notch money if they have to commit to either/or destinations for the overlapping playing days.

Both Indian and Australian leagues have credibility and are backed by financially strong boards. But a woman cricketer’s player agent today would be failing in his duty if he can’t ensure for his client the best possible contract deal that can come out of this Ind-Aus jostle.

So why should the women settle? Someone like the six-hitting specialist Shafali Varma is still far too young to realise how coveted her presence might be in both Australia and in India’s UAE edition.

But this would be disrespectful from BCCI to simply dangle the carrot of “providing visibility in the shadow of men’s game” (which is so 2010!) and extract from all the top Indians a promise to be in Dubai and not Sydney or Melbourne or Perth.

BCCI typically erred in not sending the women’s team to England, using the Coronavirus shield when it could have meant the world for the women to travel and get game-time especially when the world is starved of sport. The WIPL with its three teams and four games is frankly just a consolation prize, when what was announced was four teams and more matches – at least a stab at a “league”.

Three existing IPL franchises are realistically in a position to actually kick off a rudimentary women’s program having run girls tourneys or verbally expressed enthusiasm should the BCCI mandate it. As such, the WIPL has sprung up like an afterthought.

READ | Women’s IPL vs WBBL: Healy, Bates upset over T20 Challenge series

And while the intention might not have been to pettily bait the Australians, the 10 odd days in UAE for Indian women will be a fraction of what the Big Bash has been conducting over the years – while also helping Indians.

That the women’s game needs the patronising umbrella of men’s IPL is a slightly inflated assumption in the aftermath of MCG’s full house for the World T20 final last year, but given the board controls the coffers, the players are unlikely to murmur their disapproval of having to choose.

Other top international names might also fall in line given BCCI’s clout and the practical promise of playing at whatever terms offered this year, for the whole dazzling hamper of playing in future IPLs which might well lure even the Aussies out if their backyard given it can throw around the big bucks. Getting the WBBL to change their own dates might even get the BCCI to chuckle gleefully at their tiny triumph.

But given that the gods who control these boards will continue with their puny games, it might be the best time for the women to put what’s most important front-and-centre and repeat what Steffi Graf once famously said. In a packed stadium she got asked by a fan if she would marry him. Grinning away beguilingly, while tossing the ball and making the whole stadium wait breathlessly for a reply, she countered: “How much money do you have?”

The answer that never came was irrelevant, her question, though, was possibly the only riposte.

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