Idea of having women's T20 matches during IPL must be embraced, not ridiculed
Last week, these pages published an opinion article that argued that it might be damaging to women's cricket if women's Twenty20 (T20) exhibition matches are showcased in the middle of the IPL, as the Committee Of Administrators has indicated. This article shall examine those arguments.
Let's start with the last first, which the author labels the 'biggest problem', but I find the most objectionable. The author states that "IPL crowds are boisterous, noisy and scathing in their comments¦ IPL crowd is not like Test cricket crowd where the folks are a lot more gender-sensitive. This could be very tough on women cricketers who are unused to playing in front of massive, vociferous and rancorous crowds."
Perhaps the author's comments are well-intentioned, seeking to shield the fairer (read weaker) sex from the verbal shivs that Indian crowds dish out. Because surely, they have never seen large crowds before! Surely there weren't 25,000 'rancorous' fans at Lord's for the World Cup Final last year, in front of whom India's 'weaker' sex put up the highest ever total in a World Cup final batting second. And surely, even if there had been so many fans, they must have been 'gender sensitive', 'Test cricket crowd', not a majority of boisterous, uncouth but passionate Indian fans.
The numbers make little difference " professional athletes are trained to zone out the noise " and the choicest comments don't either. I have played in front of crowds that bad mouth you if you field badly, that make you want to leave the boundary line for the sanctuary of the infield. And I have held my nerve. I have fielded in front of crowds who turn on you, despite the blues you wear, the colours of their own country. And I have still executed my skills. It may have been 'tough on' me, but I was tougher. While those crowds were not in the tens of thousands that flock to IPL games, I have no doubt that every woman who wears the India cap is 'tough' enough to handle them.
Next, the author lists several 'logistical' and 'practical' difficulties, one being that no ground in India has four dressing rooms ("So where are the women cricketers' change rooms and wash rooms going to be?") , making back to back T20 matches difficult. He also points to the time men need to warm up before their games, and the claim that pitches would be worn out if the women's exhibition match is played first.
"Groundsmen cannot handle two matches with different boundary distances and markings on the same day", and finally, "Franchises also have too much riding on the main event to want any deviation in their team's preparation for matches."
To remedy this, I would point the author to all World T20s conducted since 2009. In each edition, the semi-finals and final have been double headers (women first, men next), with a 90-minute gap between games. In every instance, women have managed to finish their allotted overs on time (isn't that a refreshing change), and even managed to quickly vacate dressing rooms (how capable of them), so that the next team can move in. Groundsmen have enough time to change the inner circle markings and pull back the boundary line. And I am yet to hear a complaint about a pitch being poor because the women played on it first.
In any case, should the exhibition matches during the IPL become a reality, they need not be double-headers. There are three non-match days during the IPL playoffs. The exhibition matches can be held on one or all of these gap days, at the same 8 pm prime-time slots. They could be held at different venues from the playoff games, preferably tier II cities like Indore, where stadium is in the centre of the city, making it easy for crowds to come in. But it is critical that these are standalone, 8 pm games. Only then can the vast television audience of the IPL, and the nightly habit of cricket-binging, can be leveraged.
Besides, this has the added benefit of avoiding 'practical' and logistical' difficulties.
Finally we come to the part in which the author says, "In cricket, or specifically the IPL, the buzzwords are bat speed, power and intensity¦ This is where women's cricket will pale in comparison if showcased at an IPL event. The men's event will be so overwhelming that it will show women's cricket as low key. They need to be allowed to play at their own pace. They have to evolve their game and build a niche audience over a period of time. Unnaturally fast forwarding it could actually turn out to be a setback."
The author makes a valid point on the pace of play of men's cricket and women's cricket being significantly different. The 2017 IPL saw an average of 11.75 sixes hit every match, and certainly not as many are scored in the average women's T20 match, even at the international level. But the argument is self-defeating when he points out that women have a distinct pace of play (though I have issues with the word 'allowed' being used in that sentence).
Women do play at a different rhythm, but these differences need to be showcased, not hidden away. The Indian public knows a thing or two about the game, and a good cover drive is a good cover drive whether played by a man or a woman. Showcasing the women's game on the biggest stage will expose it to an ocean of prospective fans " men, women and children " and move it away from 'the niche audience' that the author suggests it builds. You won't know if fans will appreciate the different pace of the game if they can't watch it at all.
Besides, with the new playing conditions that allow only four fielders outside the ring outside the powerplay, average scores in women's T20I have shot up by close to 20 runs. In November last year, 178 was chased down, with two women scoring hundreds in the same match. The recent South Africa-India series saw 42 sixes hit (five matches), almost as many as the entire WT20 of 2016 (23 matches).
Women's cricket is played at a less frenetic pace, yes, but it is far from an unattractive sport. Put the cream of Indian talent and some of the best overseas players in the same cauldron, and you have a brew that will entertain. There are reasons why a full-fledged women's IPL should not be rushed, depth being first among them, but exhibitions matches need to start now.