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Cricket history in India today: Women’s Premier League begins

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AS THE inaugural Women’s Premier League (WPL) kicks off in Mumbai on Saturday, with the Gujarat Giants and Mumbai Indians playing the first match, it heralds new beginnings for many.

For Delhi Capitals’ top-order batswoman Sneha Deepthi, a mother of a two-year-old at 26, it’s an opportunity to return to professional sport. Then there is Royal Challengers Bangalore’s batswoman Poonam Khemnar, 28, who recalls the opposition she faced from her parents for pursuing cricket.

There is also Australia legend and Delhi Capitals’ captain Meg Lanning, 32, who moved away from the game after guiding her side to the Commonwealth Games gold medal victory in August last year. She spent her time travelling and even worked in a cafe “making coffee and washing dishes”. She led Australia to the women’s T20 World title last month — her fifth World Cup triumph, four in T20s and one in ODIs.

England’s Nat Sciver-Brunt, 30, who recently took a break to “focus on her mental health and well-being” will play for the Mumbai Indians. She returned from her break as England’s vice-captain for the T20 World Cup and finished as the second-highest run-getter in the tournament.

These women are among the close to 100 Indian and foreign players representing five franchise teams, with a combined net worth of Rs 4,670 crore, in an IPL-like league that has a Rs 951 crore broadcasting deal.

India and Mumbai Indians skipper Harmanpreet Kaur predicted that the WPL, from March 4 to March 26, would change lives and also raise the standard of the game in the country. “We are also going to get some good talent and I’m sure the difference between India and Australia sides will narrow down,” said Kaur, who played a heroic knock in India’s narrow semi-final loss to Australia in the World T20 last month.

“We have been pushing the doors for a very long time… WPL will change a lot for women’s cricket. You will find many superstars coming out of it,” said Delhi Capitals’ main batswoman Jemimah Rodrigues, one of the 10 Indian women with a crore-plus deals.

There were a few parents who helped push the doors too. In Haryana’s Rohtak, Shafali Verma’s parents chopped off her hair so that she could pass off as a boy and play local tournaments. Shafali went on to become the youngest player, male or female, to play for India. It was under her captaincy that India won the inaugural U-19 Women’s World Cup.

At Delhi Capitals, Shafali’s opening partner may be Sneha, who made her India debut in 2013 alongside Smriti Mandhana, the league’s top earner and RCB skipper. Sneha’s cricketing career didn’t quite take off, and she got married at 22. She has now made a successful return to the domestic circuit, bagged a WPL contract worth Rs 30 lakh, and wants to don India colours again.

In an emotional video posted on the Delhi Capitals’ website, Sneha talks about the anxiety of leaving her daughter at home. “She started crying when I was leaving. I wondered whether I should go at all. It was very difficult for me, but my husband told me to go ahead… Minutes after entering my hotel room, I called my husband to ask about her… In Telugu, she said, ‘baaga aadu’, which means ‘play well there’,” she says in the video clip.

For some players, the WPL is a time for remembering – and missing – their loved ones who are no longer with them. “I can’t repeat how much I miss him,” said Gujarat Giants’ vice-captain, Sneh Rana, 29, about her late father, even as she talked about how excited her family was for her.

Her India teammate and UP Warriorz all-rounder Devika Vaidya said she had decided to give up the sport at the age of 21, when she lost her mother in 2019. The Covid-19 lockdown made her rethink her future. “I realised my mom is always there — whether I am playing, not playing, crying, laughing, winning matches – she is always there with me. Now that I have accepted that fact, it is easy for me to deal with it,” she said.

Another India player, Renuka Singh Thakur, who is with Royal Challengers Bangalore, has a tattoo of a father playing with his daughter, which she inked in memory of her father, Kehar Singh Thakur, who died in 1999. “I inked that tattoo with the first paycheck I received from cricket. I have missed him in every step of my life, be it my first day at school, my first state match, my international debut,” she said.

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