Veda Krishnamurthy's KPL call-up 'shot in the arm' for women's game
The last time we spoke to Veda Krishnamurthy, the Indian women had their feet on the doorstep of unforeseen success. That it remained unrealized is something that would have pained the team and its followers alike. However, the final hurdle aside, what the 2017 Women's World Cup has surely done for the women's game in India is bring it the requisite amount of empathy from its followers.
Before this World Cup campaign, one could sympathize with the team and vouch (metaphorically, for some) for their ascendance. But on most occasions, that would be all. After that game at Lord's, you could put yourself in their shoes -- quite literally now, as sports-goods manufacturers would know -- and see how far women's cricket has traversed.
Hence, when the Belagavi Panthers picked Veda as their brand ambassador ahead of the Karnataka Premier League (KPL) 2017, you could finally conclude that those women -- or at least the elite few, for starters -- are having their share of well-deserved attention meted out to them.
"It is good to get the recognition (after the world cup). Although it's quite tiring, you know (the attention). Playing matches and attending camps was way easier," Veda chuckles, as we sit for a candid chat on the sidelines of her pre-season photo shoot with the Panthers.
"None of us were familiar with this sort of attention. But the girls are coping up with it and they're doing it well."
You can see it for yourself, can't you? Mithali Raj's itinerary essentially includes endorsements, dance-show appearances, and charity work. Harmanpreet Kaur accompanies Mithali on occasions and on others she's seen receiving awards, posing for a photo-shoot or hanging out with her India teammates.
"It's very exciting. The first time I got a call saying we wanted you to be the brand ambassador, I was like, 'I haven't done this thing.' I was very curious to know how things work inside a franchise as I have not been a part of any such thing before this," Veda says even as her stylist decks her up for the shoot.
"I was pretty excited the first time I got a call, and I said yes. I just googled Belagavi Panthers; I wanted to know who all are there in the team," she adds.
She could be excused for not knowing too much about the team she was to about to endorse -- the Panthers have India and IPL stars such as Sreenath Aravind and Stuart Binny in their midst -- for this is the first time in Indian franchise cricket that a woman cricketer has been picked to endorse a team composed entirely of men.
From the cohorts of movie stars and a select few female sportspersons -- Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, and Sania Mirza -- the 'brand-wagon' has now moved to cover these women more than having these women cover their products.
And this commercial attention hasn't been an overnight phenomenon. Legend has it that in 2005, a 12-year-old Veda had attended a practice session at one of the cricket institutes in Bengaluru to watch Mithali play. 12 years on, the 24-year-old Veda, having now rubbed shoulders with Mithali, Jhulan Goswami and the likes, recognizes the responsibility that comes with being the ambassador of a team and is confident of the kind of role model she can be to the T20 cricketers of this generation.
"This team (Belagavi) is a blend of seniors and youngsters. Obviously, they would look at us and say, 'Okay fine, a woman cricketer has done so well.' Probably they'll feel it's a chance for us to do well as well," she speaks about her role with the franchise.
The matter-of-factly way in which Veda stated her perception of youngsters looking up to a woman is not surprising at all. She's played most of her cricket in Karnataka --it is a pity, really, that only her India games have been televised -- and hence, she realizes the role that the mushrooming T20 leagues such as the KPL can play in shaping the careers of those who wouldn't have risen to prominence if there were only league cricket games followed by state selection trials.
"It's a huge platform. If they're playing the Ranji Trophy or 50-over cricket for Karnataka, it is only the 15 of them who are recognized. Since KPL is happening, we have six teams, and we have so many other players. So it's a huge boost for every person who is talented, be it at the U-19 or U-23 level, and hasn't quite made it to the Ranji side.
"From here, people would take note, and then you never know," Veda explains the role of franchise cricket in this day and age.
Ask Shivil Kaushik, Basil Thampi, and Washington Sundar, and you know just how much.
"Even for selection for the state sides, they only get a few matches to play. Here, it is a long tournament, so they've got a better chance to make themselves noticed because there is more number of match opportunities," she adds.
There could not have been a better person to talk about this, for perhaps Veda would know -- especially in the absence of T20 cricket in any form for Indian women -- how difficult it becomes to get noticed when you're vying for a place in the select 15.
It is here that franchise-based T20 cricket for women, for which Mithali has already echoed her support, could help build on the success of this women's team. It may open the Pandora's box, just like Lalit Modi had done after the men's team had won the inaugural World T20 in 2007.
It is also here that Australia and England have outpaced Modi's land. That they have alternated between winning world cups also helps. Veda's teammates in Kaur and Smriti Mandhana have already tasted offshore waters in Australia, something that's likely to make things easy for them whenever they travel next.
"Yes, definitely (franchise-based league) it would help. Franchise-based league cricket has started in Australia and it was a huge success there. It is helping them also. It is giving them a lot of talent and a lot of cricketers are being selected based on their performances in the Big Bash. It's a great thing," Veda says on the prospect of having a women's IPL.
Broadly, there were two aspects that Modi had to take care of in 2008 when the IPL was conceptualized. There had to be enough Indian players to sustain an eight-team tournament and those players had to be marketed to an audience that was hungry for a fantasy league where they could see MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh play against each other.
Whether India is now ready to watch Mithali play against Veda is not known. But one thing that Veda is sure of is the desire amongst the Indian masses to watch these women play more. The India-England final at Lord's had created 19.53 million impressions on television and was the most-watched women's sporting event in India.
"It is something that they (BCCI) have to start from scratch. But the BCCI are aware of it now since things are going well; now people want to watch us play. That's a good plus point for us because earlier, whatever was happening, nobody used to know. Now people are watching us so I think BCCI will have it somewhere down the line," Veda lets her opinion known on the marketability aspect of the proposed league.
"It might not happen immediately, it takes a lot of time and they should plan accordingly. It shouldn't be like they start something in a hurry and then it doesn't work out. They need to visualize how it works. But I am sure it is on the cards.
"The major thing (for a women's IPL) would be how they're going to sell us because if they want to start an IPL they would want people coming in and watching us. Obviously, you wouldn't want people to come and watch us for free. You need to buy tickets for watching us play. So how they are going to market that is going to be very important before they start an IPL," she explains further.
It was stunning, really, to look at the enthusiasm with which she was discussing the various aspects that make a T20 league thrive. Given that such a league has only been a distant possibility for most of her compatriots, the starters guide (or so to speak) that Veda gave left me pleasantly surprised.
This was the aspect that Modi had to worry about 10 years ago. What he didn't have to worry about, though, was the base of cricketers at the grassroots. Not all of them were T20 material -- the term 'T20 material' was defined only later -- as an opening combination of Rahul Dravid and Wasim Jaffer in the inaugural IPL game suggested, but there were first-class and List A players nevertheless.
This is where women's cricket may be found wanting. There isn't a concrete List-A or a T20 domestic structure in place and that may come about as a stumbling block. Veda, though, looks at it differently.
"How I am seeing now is that a women's IPL would be the bridge between domestic cricket and international cricket. I personally feel there's a huge gap between domestic and international cricketers. For the young players, even though many of them come into the international circuit, very few of them are able to adjust," she speaks of the base of female cricketers.
"They will still need time to adjust because of the set-up; the bridge is so large. So if they play the IPL alongside international cricketers I think they'll learn a lot."
She points out to camps and talent scouts for recognizing such players.
"I have always believed that if you organize more camps for those at the grassroots or the U-19 and the U-23 level, you will get more talent. You may find someone who is very talented, but unless you're tested against a good-quality opposition you won't know whether the player is ready or not. And that will happen only when you play competitive cricket," she says.
Assuming that this fantasy finds the light of the day, the next step would be to sustain the model of the women's IPL. The men's team won the 2011 World Cup and the 2013 Champions Trophy. They have also qualified for the knockouts of every ICC tournament post the 2012 World T20. These successes have augured well for the IPL in that it has sustained and built viewership.
Of course, the IPL has had its less glorious days -- the 2013 spot-fixing scandal tainted its image to a large extent -- but the way the administration has dealt with those issues has, at least in the public image, made the league 'great again.'
However, the question of viewership doesn't bother Veda for she believes that this world cup campaign has captured the imagination of the Indian audience like no other tournament.
"It (television coverage) has definitely built viewership for us. I was pleased the way it turned out for us during the World Cup. From game one to the finals it was a huge difference. I'm sure you don't need an IPL to boost viewership; for now, we already have people who want to watch," she says.
"They cannot just say that since we've done well in a world cup, we should start an IPL. What if it turns out to be a disaster?"
The anticipation is there but Veda isn't ready just yet to err on the side of caution. Perhaps there is a feeling that when the haze of the world cup subsides, the women would have to really start from scratch again. But plans are already in place to prevent that from recurring.
Kaur is now an Arjuna Awardee. The BCCI's women's committee -- comprising of CoA member Diana Edulji, Mithali Raj, and Jhulan Goswami -- has been tasked to plan the road ahead for the women's team. Already, more 'A' tours are being proposed and the U-16 and U-23 zonal tournaments are likely to be escalated to all-India level.
This world cup has opened the lid on the box that contained possibilities of untapped potential being explored and there being local proteges like the Suryakumar Yadavs for KKR, Amabati Rayudus for Mumbai Indians and Stuart Binnys for RCB. The possibilities are endless. The road, however, is yet to be paved.