The bat cracked sharply for the first hit of India’s inaugural women’s cricket league, and the crowd gathered at Mumbai’s DY Patil stadium let out a string of whoops and cheers.
Uber fan Ria Raichaudhuri led the way.
“It feels unreal right now because we’ve been wanting this [league] for so long and it’s finally here,” she said, minutes before the match between the newly formed Mumbai Indians and Gujarat Giants kicked off earlier this week.
“This is a feeling that’s going to last forever,” Raichaudhuri added, saying she was filled with pride at watching the female cricketers take the pitch before 25,000 fans in the packed stadium.
“Everyone is very excited to watch the women’s cricket league,” another fan, Ankur Mahadik, told CBC News.
“You can feel it. Wherever the women’s team goes, people are backing them.”
His friend Nishad Saman quickly chimed in, stating that cricket “is a religion for us,” and predicting big success for the new women’s league.
The three-week tournament is already a big deal in India, involving big cricket names and big money. The first-ever Women’s Premier League (WPL) was confirmed as one of the most lucrative female leagues in the world before the first ball was even bowled, second only to WNBA basketball.
The numbers are astonishing, even in a country as cricket-mad as India. The day that five new women’s cricket teams went up for auction to investors marked one the biggest-ever financial hauls in the history of women’s sports — more than $775 million Cdn. The sale of media rights has also brought in additional revenue.
The league’s financial draw doesn’t surprise K Shriniwas Rao, a cricket expert and editor for the Network 18 news organization.
“The last thing that you need to sell in this country, India, is cricket,” he said.
Cricket long ago surpassed Bollywood as the country’s biggest export to the world and is its “biggest soft power,” he added.
“Money is something that comes naturally to the game. Why? Because of the consumption.”
The women’s league is also expected to attract a more diverse pool of sponsors, Rao said, pointing to the fact an Indian cosmetic company, Lotus Herbals, secured top spot on the Mumbai Indians’ jersey.
The female cricketers, a mix of Indian players and international ones, are also benefiting from more lucrative pay days and increased exposure during the league’s first three-week run.
“We’re all very excited,” Harmanpreet Kaur, international cricket star and captain of the Mumbai Indians, told reporters at a press briefing the day before the first match on March 4.
Kaur is one of the highest paid female international cricketers in India, but the launch of the Women’s Premier League has been a boon for her, after she secured a contract with the Mumbai Indians worth $300,000 Cdn. Even younger, rookie players are benefiting, with an assured a base salary that reached as high as $84,000 Cdn.
Kaur has called the league not just a “game-changer” for women’s cricket in India, but a “revolution.”
“We were always looking for this opportunity for so many years, and now the platform is here and I think that is definitely going to take women’s cricket to the next level,” she said.
An inspiration for young girls
That next level is on everyone’s mind at the MIG cricket club in Mumbai during a practice session on a sunny weekday afternoon.
Janvi Vasaikar fixes her target with her eyes, playing with the ball as she prepares to bowl. Minutes later, she’s in the batting cage, practising hitting.
The 12-year-old is determined to work hard at cricket.
“It’s my father’s dream and my dream too that I have to play for India one day,” she told CBC News.
Watching professional female players in the new league brings her hope that she might one day also be on television, impressing other young Indian girls.
“It feels really really great because that’s my inspiration.”
Janvi’s parents sit on the sidelines of her practice, full of pride and support for their daughter, who quickly took over from her older brother as the family’s cricket hope as soon as she held a bat in her hands.
“Her confidence is increasing,” said her mother Vaishali Vasaikar, attributing that to more chances to play the game Janvi loves, as the enthusiasm around women’s cricket in India keeps growing.
Janvi’s teammates are also inspired by the new league, which is pointing to a potential career that was shut tight for previous generations of aspiring female cricketers, who had to fight to be taken seriously.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to prove that we have the power to think about the shots,” said Thia Ganatra, 15, in between batting practice.
She smiled slyly.
“Women have a lot of power and they can do it better than men.”
‘Growing up, we had only male cricket stars’
Back at the stadium, soaking in the atmosphere of a live cricket match featuring India’s best female players, Raichaudhuri still can’t get over it.
“It’s massive. Growing up, we had only male cricket stars and cricket idols,” she said.
“These women coming every single day on our TV screens are going to be such big inspirations, especially in a country that loves cricket so much.”
Cricket watchers and investors are paying close attention to see if the Women’s Premier League is able to translate that love into ticket sales, to stay financially viable and whether the tournament could be an example for other countries where cricket is popular.
More than 47,000 people watched the Indian national women’s team play Australia in Mumbai in December, setting a national record. The new team owners believe there is even more growth potential for the domestic league.
Take Manju Choudhary, who strolls into DY Patil stadium while pulling her three-year old sister by the hand to watch the Mumbai Indians beat the Gujarat Indians.
It’s her very first trip to watch cricket live. When asked why she decided to come, Choudhary’s answer was simple.
“Because it’s a women’s league, that’s why.”