Women's cricket is on the rise in India

After decades of subpar attention, opportunities, and resources, women's cricket in India is finally hitting its stride at the highest levels of the game.

Over the past decade, Indian women's cricket has been on the rise. In 2017, India reached the final of the 50-over World Cup in England, and in 2020, the team reached the T20 World Cup finals in Australia.

Harmanpreet Kaur, the current captain of the Indian women's cricket team across all three formats—ODI, T20I, and test cricket—has been widely credited with attracting huge attention to the women’s cricket team with her 2017 World Cup performance. Kaur scored 171 not out in India's unlikely win in the 2017 ODI World Cup semi-final against Australia.

Indian men’s cricket has dominated the scene for a very long time. The rigorous and persistent efforts of Indian women's cricketing legends like Shantha Rangaswamy, Diana Edulji, Jhulan Goswami, Mithali Raj, and Anjum Chopra have made it possible for players like Kaur to showcase their talents on the world stage.

Women's cricket in India has finally received the attention it deserves and can no longer be overlooked.

An Uphill Battle

India’s women cricketers have had to overcome many obstacles since the establishment of the Women's Cricket Association of India (WCAI) in Lucknow in 1973. The “Women in Blue” played their first ODI during the 1978 World Cup, the same year WCAI got recognized by the International Women’s Cricket Council (IWCC). After thirty-two years, in 2005, the women's team reached the final of the Cricket World Cup held in South Africa.

Kathakali Banerjee, a former cricketer, and Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the national governing body of cricket, match referee, and a certified BCCI-NCA Level 2 coach, says the WCAI was broke and didn't have enough in their coffers to support the players.

She began playing for the state of West Bengal in the seventh grade in 1997, in addition to the Board President's XI, a domestic-level first-class cricket team that competes in practice tour matches against international teams visiting India. Moreover, in 2010, she represented the India Blue team in the Challenger Trophy, a limited-overs cricket tournament that showcases emerging talent on the domestic circuit.

The state of women's cricket in India back then was borderline embarrassing.

“It was a struggle. No proper facilities were provided [by WCAI]. They didn't have any infrastructure. I played for a long time under their banner, but that wasn't professional cricket,” she adds.

“There were no perks, no financial support, no payments. So, it was entirely up to the parents to support the girls who wanted to play the game,” reminisces Banerjee.

Her father, who had played cricket at the university level, recognized her natural aptitude for the game and encouraged her to pursue it as a profession. She understood that no money was involved. However, financial support was always needed.

“There were times when the Women’s Cricket Association of Bengal didn't have enough money to send us on tours. So, the 15 players had to contribute to their tickets as team players. We traveled in unreserved [train] compartments, slept on the floor, and stayed in dormitories and classrooms,” she reminisces.

She says only the love for the game and the glory of representing the state kept them going for many years.

Finally, a turning point for the women's game arrived in 2006. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) began paying proper attention to female involvement in one of the nation's most beloved sports, and gender equality began to grow on the pitch.

Come 2023, the BCCI announced that contracted female players had to be paid the same amount as men per match. The cricketing body also increased the number of matches for domestic women cricketers and matched the match fees for international women cricketers with those of their male counterparts. India now joins Australia, New Zealand, and England as the fourth country with an equal pay policy.

The Indian women's cricket team has also hired more professional coaches and staff, including its first ever sports psychologist, at the request of captain and advocate Harmanpreet Kaur.

Banerjee credits cricketers Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami for playing a huge role in convincing the BCCI to champion women’s cricket. The significance of this is not to be underestimated – while the original players had fire in their bellies and a love for the game, the governing body actually has access to the necessary resources to help players take their game to the next level.

“Both Jhulan and Mithali have been the poster girls for women's cricket, so they are legends in their own right. They were the ones who kept pushing the BCCI, particularly Mithali, who did a lot to push the BCCI to take us under their wings,” she says.

Overcoming Obstacles 

Many young girls were left to figure out how to play professional cricket on their own for a long time. Bharti Fulmali, who played on the national team, started playing cricket in the gullies and byways of small-town India around 2004 when she was ten. 

“I used to watch cricket matches on TV with my family, which piqued my curiosity about the sport. I then started playing with the boys in the neighborhood,” she says.

Fulmali, who hails from Amravati, a city in the western state of Maharashtra, continued playing cricket in school and used practice balls in small local tournaments. Her teachers noticed her talent for the game and encouraged her father to provide her with proper training.

While there was already a national women's cricket team, the infrastructure at the grassroots level was sorely lacking.

“My father worked tirelessly to find a club for me, but unfortunately, he was turned away from every place he approached, including the Amravati district club [associated with the state cricket association], due to the policy of not allowing girls to practice with boys. They were concerned about the physical differences and believed boys played too rough for girls to handle,” says Fulmali.

Two years after picking up a bat for the first time, Fulmali and her father saw an advertisement for a private summer camp for boys and girls led by a reputable cricket academy.

“I was admitted to the camp, although it was a little expensive. My dad had to borrow some money for the admission fee. It was my first experience playing with a leather ball. The coach there encouraged my dad to continue my cricket coaching,” she says.

Fulmali then practiced with the World Cricket Academy (WCA) for a year when she was eleven. Unfortunately, after a year, the club suddenly ceased operations in Amravati, and her training abruptly stopped. Her cricketing aspirations were once again in limbo.

Luckily, the district cricket association, which had previously turned her away, released an advertisement not long after, calling for women’s trials. Neither Fulmali nor her father knew what "trials" were, so they decided to go and watch.

At the trials, they ran into Pratik Ghogre, one of Fulmali's former chess coaches, who she discovered was also in the cricket world. Upon explaining her prior training experience at WCA, she was given the green light to participate in the trials.

Fulmali was far from prepared.

“I wore jeans and a top and had not brought my equipment. I borrowed somebody’s shoes and pads and somehow participated in the trials,” she recalls.

She was selected from the trials and admitted into the Amravati District Cricket Association for coaching in 2006. Two years later, during the trials for the under-19 cricket team, she saw and felt for the first time an international green-top cricket ground in Nagpur city.

By 2008, Fulmali was selected and started playing for the Vidarbha [region] women’s under-19 cricket team. She had long dreamed of playing for the national cricket team, but lacked a plan or strategic goals to get there. She credits her childhood coach, Sandeep Gawande, for helping her bring focus to the game and giving her opportunities to play more practice matches.

Vaishnavi Khandkar, who plays for the Vidarbha women's cricket team, is based in Nagpur and trained at one of the many clubs dedicated to cricket training and coaching.

Reflecting on the past 10-15 years, she recalls a time when very few girls played cricket. Between 2007 and 2009, she trained under the watchful eye of tough coaches who were “determined to help us improve,” she says.  Like Fulmali, Khandkar was also clueless about how to pursue cricket professionally.

She practiced and played cricket casually for a long time until someone suggested she try for the state women’s team.

“I wasn’t even aware of the state team,” she says.

She was not in touch with any of the state's senior players as she was “unaware of their existence.” Slowly, she gathered information about the trials and was finally selected for the under-19 team for VCA, propelling her towards her dream.

Sumedh Bilgi has been a sports producer for nearly a decade, specializing in cricket. He has worked with various teams, leagues, and brands in the world of sports. He also hosts his podcast, the Indian Cricket Podcast. He says the podcast's idea is to chronicle the rise of Indian cricket today and speak to athletes about their journeys in the sport.

Bilgi understands the gap in information about how to pursue a cricketing career for women. Through his production house, Bilgi Media, he aims to provide a roadmap via content for young women cricketers to understand their potential career trajectory if they choose to play cricket.

“Content is my domain, and given the importance of video content and documentary work in today's sports environment, I wanted to create a content-led pathway for young girls to watch or listen to so that they can get a head start on their cricketing journey,” he says.

In 2019, Fulmali made it to the national cricket team. She debuted against England in March 2019 with India's Women's Twenty20 International (WT20I) squad. However, she was dropped from the national team after two matches due to poor performance.

Her confidence was shaken, and she continued performing poorly in the domestic circuit. She even contemplated quitting cricket.

The BCCI then announced the launch of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) in 2022, which gave her renewed hope for another shot at the game.

“I believed that the WPL could be a platform for me to prove my abilities and earn another chance to represent the national team,” she says. 

A League of its Own

BCCI launched the Women's Premier League in early 2023, 15 years after the hugely successful IPL for men. The league's first edition was played in March 2023, and five franchises participated. The second season was held in February and March 2024.

The Women's Premiere League (WPL) is expected to spur the growth of rising talent both in India and across the cricketing world. Observers are optimistic that the platform will give women cricketers a stage to showcase their abilities, win over dedicated fans, and secure more individual endorsements.

Mithali Raj, former captain of India and mentor for the Gujarat Giants WPL team, told the Associated Press that the WPL will encourage female cricketers in India to continue playing the sport for longer.

For many years, the BCCI had been reluctant to introduce a women's T20 match, stating that sponsors and broadcasters were uninterested. However, after a financial research report indicated a great demand for women's T20 cricket, the BCCI finally acted and created the WPL.

The first season in 2023 brought in a revenue of Rs 377.49 crores for the BCCI. Additionally, the organization secured a broadcasting deal worth Rs 951 crore for five years, covering both television and digital rights. This strategic move aimed to expand the league's global reach, with matches aired on major networks such as Sky Sports in the United Kingdom, Fox Sports in Australia, Willow TV in the United States and Canada, and SuperSport in South Africa.

As of 2024, the WPL features five franchises — Mumbai Indians, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Delhi Capitals, Gujarat Giants, and UP Warriorz.

Fulmali was selected and played for the Gujarat Giants WPL team in 2024 and said she gained invaluable exposure from playing the matches. 

“Foreign players' fitness regimens are rigorous. I learned about their routines and the psychology they employ to excel in the game. They are encouraged to push their boundaries and test their limits,” she says.

She communicated extensively with fellow Gujarat Giants team member Catherine Bryce from Scotland. “She shared insights into their approach, emphasizing the importance of seizing every opportunity and cultivating mental resilience,” she adds. 

Investing in the Future 

Sahasra Panyala, who hails from Hyderabad, started playing cricket for fitness reasons. Quickly, she developed an aptitude for the game and has represented her school in state and national tournaments. Her father, Venkateshwar Reddy Panyala, now encourages and assists her in pursuing a cricketing career. The WPL has significantly boosted aspiring cricketers everywhere, including Sahasra.

Venkateshwar acknowledges that the proliferation of OTT platforms and new content distribution models on the Internet also contribute to the frenzy surrounding the sport.

“Due to the advent of OTT and other internet revolutions, people can now watch all sorts of matches. This has led to much awareness, even in women's cricket. Therefore, this is one of the reasons why I encouraged her to play,” he says.

He adds, “Even if you miss a match, you can search on Google and watch the match.”

He is investing time and effort in his daughter’s training and has made provisions to help her be diligent in her practice. He hopes that Sahasra performs well and gets selected for the state team, and from there, she can progress to be chosen for a WPL team.

Right now, Sahasra is training with a private academy in the area. If she performs well, Venkateshwar plans to send her to a better academy in Bangalore or Australia for coaching. 

Bilgi says worldwide, women's sports have only received attention in select pockets.

“But now, we've realized that women, when presented with the right infrastructure and environment, can produce incredible results on the field, and the sport can be incredibly entertaining and engaging,” he adds.

He is confident that, like the men's Indian Premier League (IPL), which catapulted the cricket business forward, the Women’s Premier League (WPL) will ensure that women's cricket goes to the next level.

Bilgi says that in his conversations with the owners and important stakeholders, everybody agreed that season two of WPL has seen a big jump in interest, popularity, and player commitment.

Sexual Harassment and Opportunity Gaps

However, the rise in women's cricket is not without its dark spots. In late 2023, Indian politics and culture magazine The Caravan published a piece about the festering problem of sexual harassment in women's sports, including cricket.

The sudden surge in women's cricket within corrupt or poorly functioning state associations has made young players entering junior cricket vulnerable to abuse, and multiple female cricketers have left the sport entirely after experiencing severe sexual harassment.

Within a few weeks of the exposé, the BCCI released a comprehensive policy to prevent sexual harassment. As part of the policy, an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) was formed to handle cases of workplace sexual harassment of women per the country’s workplace sexual harassment prevention, prohibition, and redressal laws.

Fulmali now aims to play in the T20 World Cup and, after that, the one-day cricket World Cup. She says cricketers need to play more "red-ball" cricket to hone their skills. She feels that both the BCCI and state cricket associations must work towards developing a test cricket infrastructure as soon as possible.

“Test cricket not only tests your skills but also offers lucrative opportunities,” she says.

“Parents also prioritize financial stability for us after a certain point. Apart from T20 and one-day tournaments, there are no games for the rest of the year. Therefore, we need more tournaments,” she adds. 

Consistency and patience are vital in cricket, and Test cricket plays a crucial role in developing these qualities. In the long run, it will also benefit the Indian women’s cricket team.

Bilgi agrees. Talking to women who've recently played Test cricket, he learned they truly enjoyed the experience, learned much more, and grew as cricketers.

“So for every cricketer, the desire continues to play red-ball or Test cricket for their country, and it's the same for our girls. So I think yes, playing more cricket going forward, especially Test cricket, is going to be an area that can seek growth,” he says.

Kathakali Banerjee pointed out that the fee structure in the domestic circuit can improve to provide girls with financial stability. She notes that not all girls are selected for the WPL or Indian team.

“So, what about those who only play for their states? They give their full effort to the state, right?”

A New Dawn

Vaishnavi Khandkar, now 27, began her cricket journey in the lanes and side roads around their house, playing alongside her brother and father. 

Reflecting on her journey, Khandkar acknowledges the growth in opportunities for aspiring female cricketers. School tournaments, once dominated by boys, now have increased participation from girls.

But it took work. The women had to prove their mettle at every turn. Last year, the Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA) gave the state team a separate practice ground.

“This progressive mindset came about because we also started to win and qualify better as a team. Earlier, the [Vidarbha state] women's team's performance was poor. We just used to play three matches and go home. Now, we are qualifying for the next rounds of big tournaments,” she says.

She has witnessed contemporary state team players such as Jemimah Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana rise up the ranks and now play for the national team. This inspires her to push herself to do better, and she hopes one day, she will be able to emulate her idol, Mithali Raj. 

“When I started going to the local club for practice, there were only three girls in the entire club. At that time, I used to practice with boys only,” reminisces Khandkar.

When she joined the VCA in 2010, there weren’t many players.

“If there were 40 girls, around 20 would participate in the camps, and 15 would be selected,” she says.

“That number now runs into the hundreds,” she adds.