From WCAI to WPL, 50-year journey of Indian women’s cricket

New Delhi, Feb 26 :As women’s cricket in India is now all set for a revolutionary turn with the start of Women’s Premier League (WPL) from March 4,  we take a look at the state of women’s cricket in the country before the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) took charge of it in 2006.

Women’s cricket in India owes its birth to the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI), whose founder-cum-secretary Mahendra Kumar Sharma got it registered under the Societies Act of Lucknow in 1973. WCAI’s first President was Premala Chavan, late former Congress MP and mother of Prithviraj Chavan, ex-Maharashtra Chief Minister.

In the same year, the WCAI also received the International Women’s Cricket Council’s (IWCC) membership as well. A women’s inter-state national tournament began in 1973 with three teams – Mumbai, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.

The second edition was held in Varanasi at the end of the year, and by then the tournament expanded to eight teams. By the time the third championship was held in Calcutta, the number of teams had gone up to 14. Post that, all states took part in the national tournament.

In 1974, an inter-zonal limited-over tournament named Rani Jhansi Trophy was held in Kanpur.

In 1975, an inter-university tournament was held at Rajkot, with the trophy named after Gunamathi Nayudu, the wife of India’s first men’s team captain, C.K. Nayudu. It also paved the way for sub-junior and junior tournaments for the U-15 and U-19 players.

The winners of each zone then featured in the Indira Priyadarshini Trophy and the winners of the nationals played against the Rest of India team for the Rau’s Cup. There were camps which were held in partnership with the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, where the legendary Lala Amarnath would guide the female cricketers.

The first-ever bilateral women’s cricket series organised by the WCAI was played in India in 1975 when the Australia U-25 team toured the country to play a three-Test series in Pune, Delhi and Calcutta.

India fielded three captains for each Test — Ujwala Nikam, Sudha Shah and Sreerupa Bose. A little later after the Australian series came New Zealand for five three-day matches in Calcutta, New Delhi, Lucknow, Pune and Bangalore.

But the big moment for the India women’s team came when they played their first-ever Test against the West Indies in 1976 in Bangalore, before scripting their first international win in the Moin-ul-Haq stadium in Patna.

WCAI oversaw India hosting their first-ever Women’s ODI World Cup in 1978. This was a stupendous achievement considering that it was a time when the governing body largely relied on donations from individuals and the government.

It would go on to host the 1997 Women’s ODI World Cup too, where 11 teams participated and Australia beat England in the final in front of nearly 80,000 fans at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata.

The problem in arranging funds would become a constant issue for WCAI once Sharma resigned from the WCAI in 1978. Then came the problem of playing matches as between the 1978 and 1982 World Cups, the Indian women’s team didn’t play any international match.

After years of struggle and hard work, including missing the 1988 ODI World Cup due to administration apathy, India finally won their first-ever ODI series during the centenary celebrations of New Zealand Cricket in 1995. Another high point was being runners-up in the 2005 women’s ODI World Cup in South Africa.

The WCAI would be in existence over the next decade till the BCCI took over the operations of women’s cricket in 2006. Though the number of matches under it reduced drastically, the runners-up finish in the 2017 ODI World Cup in England brought women’s cricket in India under the spotlight.

So what changed for women’s cricket in India after BCCI took over the sport?

Travelling in unreserved second class coaches in trains was upgraded to air travel. Staying in dormitories made way for hotel accommodation, and playing on rough wickets was swapped for playing on better pitches.

From not being paid much to now making money from playing cricket apart from the brand endorsements, the players also got match fees and daily allowances. There were umpires, video analysts and cricket began to take a professional look, getting players to focus more on the game and their fitness.

But one thing is certain, without the WCAI and its initial steps of starting women’s cricket in India, the WPL wouldn’t have been on the verge of coming into reality in a week’s time.