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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

T20I series: India Women may have lost to Australia Women, but history was made at DY Patil Stadium — again

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Smriti Mandhana made 28 runs off 22 balls in the first match of the ongoing T20I series at DY Patil Stadium, Navi Mumbai. (Image source: Twitter/Mandhana_Smriti)

Deepti Sharma completes a single with a desperate dive at the keeper’s end in the 19th over of India’s innings. The 25,000-strong crowd at the DY Patil Stadium in the western Indian city of Navi Mumbai erupts, as if the home team has struck the winning run.

Except, this isn’t the winning run. And the hosts don’t end up on the winning side on the night.

Yet, when the match-sealing run indeed comes about, an hour or so later, the applause that rings out to cap off the first-ever women’s international cricket match at the stadium, is just as fervent, if not as loud.

World champions and Commonwealth Games gold medallists Australia have just wrapped up their highest successful T20I chase, of 173. They take a 0-1 lead in the five-T20I series, extending their unbeaten streak across formats this year to 25 matches.

Four of those wins have come over India alone. Coming off an Asia Cup title triumph in September-October, they have now copped a second straight defeat against Australia since the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games final in August.

(Image source: Twitter/Jay Shah) (Image source: Twitter/Jay Shah)

The rivalry between the two teams has gained a fan base of its own over the years. “Most particularly remember Harmanpreet Kaur’s match-winning 171 not-out against them (Australia) in the (2017 ODI) World Cup semi-final,” says Pavan Gupta, an intern at the Terna Physiotherapy College, as he and some of his fellow interns accompany me to the Nerul Station from the DY Patil Stadium after the match.

Gupta and Co., all aged between 22 and 23, were among the thousands of spectators who hung back to watch Harmanpreet Kaur, the India captain, and her team, square off against the Australians in the first T20I till the end of the match on Friday night. This, despite the imminence of a victory for the visiting team only having got stronger with every delivery India bowled, each fielding slip-up they made.

When Tahlia McGrath brought up the 100th run of her partnership with Player of the Match Beth Mooney to complete Australia’s nine-wicket win, the strength of the crowd still stood at about a sizeable one-third of what it had been at the peak of the heady evening. An unusual sight, you’d think, per standard cricket-watching idiosyncrasies at Indian stadiums.

But, then, for a fixture that itself marked a first at the venue, which has hosted everything from the inaugural IPL final in 2008 to the FIFA Under-17 men’s and women’s World Cup matches in 2017 and 2022, respectively, the Indian Super League football fixtures and concerts headlined by Justin Bieber and U2, little can be tethered to the “usual” as we know it or, specifically, the “usual” for women’s cricket in India.

After all, since India thrust themselves onto the consciousness of the majority of the country’s cricket-following demographic through their breakout runners-up finish in the 2017 Women’s ODI World Cup in England, over half a decade has gone by with little to no efforts made at modelling marketing strategies around the appetite for the women’s game witnessed at Indian stadiums.

The BCCI, for its part, has never quite in earnest done much to elevate the footfall for women’s international matches through well-chalked-out methodologies. Take the ongoing India vs Australia series. Until match-day morning of the series opener, precious little by way of official word came from the Indian board – through press releases or their rabidly followed social-media channels – on spectator entry for the five matches.

A tweet from the BCCI Women handle just seven hours from the start of the first T20I was the first official communication regarding free admittance to the DY Patil Stadium, the venue for the first two T20Is. The dearth of verified information in the lead-up to the series left many home fans with very little time to plan their travel to what was the first women’s international match in India this year.

To put this in context: the stadium is located at a driving distance of about 30km from Mumbai proper, and requires hours-long journeying by train, bus, or private transport. The Australian and Indian squads, put up at Marine Drive in south Mumbai, for example, have been doing 90-minute commutes each way by bus to get to the DY Patil Stadium from their hotel.

With barely anything beyond word-of-mouth and last-minute social media posts – a rare, full, front-page ad on the series appeared on a leading national daily on Friday morning – the massive turnout filling up nearly half of the 55,000-seater DY Patil Stadium does make one wonder what women’s cricket in India might look like if generating buzz around women’s matches had more to do with design, than chance.

As such, footfall in non-metros like Vadodara, Surat, Lucknow, Jaipur, and Pune has consistently, and handsomely, surpassed those in big cities, including Mumbai, as far as women’s international and Women’s T20 Challenge matches since 2017 go. Navi Mumbai, founded in 1971 as a satellite township to take the pressure off Mumbai city, further strengthened the trend.

The attendance for Friday night was of course just one part of the story. It said nothing about the thousands who had queued up for long stretches of time to collect their tickets and then go through security checks – on either side of the first ball being bowled at 7pm local time.

Tickets for the first Women's T20I match at DY Patil Satdium. (Photo by Annesha Ghosh) Tickets for the first Women’s T20I match at DY Patil Satdium. (Photo by Annesha Ghosh)

Such was the immensity of the footfall, a few groups of restless fans almost came to blows with each other and took down the makeshift wooden frames outside Gate 3 while India openers Smriti Mandhana and Shafali Verma unleashed thrashing of a more acceptable kind inside the stadium, during the powerplay.

Friday’s turnout gathers further topicality when viewed against the backdrop of the brainstorming currently underway at the BCCI to get an inaugural Women’s Indian Premier League (WIPL) off the ground in March 2023. (Not least because the Indian board announced the media-rights tender for the first five seasons of the WIPL, 2023 to 2027, on the same day, too.)

The ownership model of the teams of next year’s inaugural WIPL is yet to be decided. As things stand, the BCCI has drawn up two initial plans: to host what’s likely to be five-team WIPL zone-wise, across Dharamsala/Jammu (North zone), Pune/Rajkot (West), Indore/Nagpur/Raipur (Central), Ranchi/Cuttack (East), Kochi/Visakhapatnam (South) and Guwahati (North-East).

Alternatively, franchises could be sold without a fixed home base, with matches to be played at six shortlisted IPL venues: Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai.

With crowds showing up in huge numbers at the DY Patil Stadium for the first India vs Australia T20I, and a higher turnout expected for the second game on Sunday, the reception to a women’s international series in India could be unlike any witnessed in the country in recent years.

But much of it will also rely on whether India’s bowling and fielding units can put on improved showings in subsequent matches. How the Brabourne Stadium Mumbai looks to build on the momentum the series has got going in Navi Mumbai, vis-à-vis spectator presence, could also be a determinant.

For now, suffice to say, the DY Patil Stadium has embraced women’s sport this year in India like no other stadium has. Barely nine weeks after a record 24,284 turnout attended the Spain vs Colombia final of the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World at this ground, women’s cricket, had a night to remember, too.

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