Six-day ‘challenge’ has women basking in new-found stardom
Lea Tahuhu, the 28-year-old fast bowler for the New Zealand women’s cricket team, isn’t quite used to being mobbed by selfie-seeking fans. But a day after the Women’s T20 Challenge in Jaipur ended, she—along with compatriots Amelia Kerr and Sophie Devine—were surrounded by a horde of fans at the Jaipur airport.
Their tournament lasted only six days, under the shadow of the mammoth IPL carnival—but the three cricketers enjoyed their brief stardom, and happily obliged.
Tahuhu was part of the Supernovas, the team that won the title. There were three teams in the fray, led by three of India’s most prominent cricketers: the Supernovas, captained by Harmanpreet Kaur, Velocity, led by Smriti Mandhana, and the Trailblazers, led by Mithali Raj.
“The reception that we’ve got here during our stay has been simply unbelievable,” Tahuhu said. “Playing under the lights, in front of large crowds, was amazing. I dislocated my shoulder during the celebrations (after winning the title) but didn’t even think about the pain.”
The turnout for the final on May 11 was unexpected and caught the Rajasthan Cricket Association by surprise. Over 13,000 people attended the match, and nearly 4,000 people were left stranded outside when the stadium authorities had to shut the gates after the limited stands that had been opened for the match got filled.
Last year, the ‘women’s IPL’ was just a one-off exhibition at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, with a couple of hundred people in attendance.
Women’s cricket has grown in the last five years; in 2015 Australia introduced the first T20 league, the Women’s Big Bash, and a year later there was the Women’s Cricket Super League in England and Wales. Can India, the epicentre of the game, be far behind?
Mithali Raj, India’s Test and ODI captain, has the sketch of a roadmap: “We could add two more teams, a double-leg competition, where we play each team twice,” she said. “That gives every player and the team a few more games to showcase their talent. Holding the tournament in smaller cities will always draw bigger crowds.”
T20 captain Harmanpreet Kaur chipped in: “Organising double-header games during the IPL can also boost the popularity of a women’s League.”
A total of 39 cricketers were part of the three teams that took part in the T20 Challenge tournament, and they came from India, West Indies, New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. For many, this was the first time they were playing with, and not against players they look up to. “I have learnt a lot about the art of fast bowling from the great Jhulan Goswami,” Tahuhu, considered the fastest bowler in women’s cricket, said.
With Goswami, the highest wicket-taker in Women’s ODIs, and Mansi Joshi, a relative newcomer to the Indian team, Tahuhu developed a knuckle ball.
Chamari Attapattu, the Sri Lanka skipper, said that opening the batting for the Supernovas with Harmanpreet was an eye-opening experience for her.
“I enjoyed batting with her and observing closely how she conducts herself on and off the field,” she said. “It would be lovely to have such tournament every year. This will really help women’s cricket grow.”
In turn, India’s 21-year-old wicket-keeper Taniya Bhatia, absorbed lessons from Atapattu.
“I was really fascinated with the way Attapattu prepares before an innings and then just goes after the bowling,” Bhatia said. “Sitting in the same dressing room with such players helps you immensely.”
Mandhana, who captained Trailblazers, the third team in the competition, said that for younger players, a tournament like this can be invaluable.
“Just being at the nets, watching the more experienced players, how they go after the bowling, can give them confidence,” Mandhana said. “All our young players—Jemimah Rodrigues (18-year-old Maharashtra batsman who made her India debut last year), Shefali Verma who is just 15, did well.”
Rodrigues won the player of the series, despite coming off a poor T20 series against England in March.
“I worked on my mistakes at the nets back home and then applied myself during the Women’s T20 Challenge,”
Rodrigues said. “We don’t get to play under lights, but in Jaipur we experienced that as well.”