WPL is changing cricket audience culture. Kids in the stands yell jemimah, men now say “slap woman”

Mumbai, Navi-Mumbai: The father-daughter duo settled into the west stand of Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai on a sweltering Sunday night to watch their first cricket match together. Arya is just four years old. But Nitish knew it was her big moment. He quickly became a commentator and began explaining each delivery as the UP Warriorz faced the Mumbai Indians in the inaugural T20 Women’s Premier League.

“Arya, did you see what the batsman did?” Nitish asked as he and the stadium jumped for joy. Mumbai Indians skipper Harmanpreet Kaur had just bent over and creamed a delivery of Sophie Ecclestone through covers for a border in the 13th over. It was an exhilarating moment. But within seconds, Nitish realized he had said something wrong. He immediately corrected himself and repeated the phrase, calling the bat a “bat woman.”

It was an important correction.

The change in Nitish’s language is not an anomaly. India’s cricket spectator culture is changing. Men still dominate the numbers in the stands, but women – across all age groups – have also turned up in large numbers with friends, partners and young children. They watch the match but also mark their presence at a historic turning point in Indian cricket – the ongoing women’s T20 premier cricket league in India. The sport drives many cricket fans to the stadiums. For fans like Nitish, it’s also an opportunity to be part of a new world, the one that will belong to his daughter.

“When I was watching a WPL game on TV the other day, I saw a banner that said ‘The men’s game is neither gentle nor just a man’s game’. I just knew I had to go to the stadium, especially when they play just a few miles from my home,” said Swati, 26, who left early from her job in Lower Parel to watch her first women’s cricket match, 28 , to visit km away, at DY Patil Sports Stadium in Navi Mumbai. There was also her colleague Shashwatee, who had never seen a cricket match in a stadium before.

The two women, along with scores of others, are leading the tide that is transforming Indian cricket. An abstract thought until just a few years ago, the large crowds at WPL matches, made up of women, men and children, is a testament to the appeal that cricket has in India. And now it’s showing strong signs that passion for the game can transcend player gender. The game’s economy worked to a certain extent, after all.

With five teams, 87 players (both Indian and foreign) and two venues on opposite ends of Mumbai, the Women’s Premier League is a brave new world of girl power – on the field and in the stands. It has lifted women’s cricket out of the shadow of the BCCI men’s team, whose players wipe away money every time they step out in the sun or under the floodlights. Players such as India women’s captain Harmanpreet Kaur are now brand ambassadors (Puma), Smriti Mandhana is being bought by Royal Challengers Bangalore Women for Rs 3.4 crore and the media rights for the inaugural league have been sold for Rs 951 crore.

It also expands the cricket universe by attracting many first-time viewers as well.

Mumbai Indians supporters during the game against Gujarat Giants at Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai | Photo: @wplt20 | Twitter

Also read: Why India’s retired women cricketers will be left out of the BCCI pension scheme

Yeh toh bas shuruaat hai

It’s Monday evening.

There is one hour left until the Delhi Capitals vs Royal Challengers Bangalore game. It’s a must for Smriti Mandhana-led RCB, who have lost all four of their previous meetings, to keep their league hopes alive.

Throughout the Navi Mumbai stadium, women sit together in groups unaccompanied by men. It’s almost like a statement.

A group of nine women, aged between 35 and 40, all dressed in ethnic attire, smartphones in hand, click selfies after choosing the ‘best’ seats in their wing. Seconds later, the dance cam – similar to the “kiss cam” tradition at sporting events in the US and Canada – pans on them and the women burst into a dance while the in-house DJ plays the pep WPL Anthem: Ye Toh Bas Shuruaat Haicomposed by Shankar Mahadevan and sung by Harshdeep Kaur, Akriti Kakar, Neeti Mohan.

The Josh builds up like a storm in the stadium.

Immediately after the draw, which the Delhi Capitals won and voted for the field, more and more people thronged in to fill the teal and pink chairs at DY Patil Stadium. The crowd in just one wing was enough to beat Andheri station’s frequency during peak hours. The free tickets for women and Rs 100 fee for men have certainly helped attract people from all over the city.

Mandhana came out to open for RCB and the crowd went crazy. Despite the previous defeats, chants of “Smriti…RCB…Smriti…RCB” filled the stadium. But Mandhana isn’t the only favorite among Indian fans; Australian cricketer Ellyse Perry is another.

“Perry, I love you,” Asha yelled from the stands as the Aussie held out against the Delhi Capitals’ bowling attack while her team-mates exited one by one. Asha and her group of women have been friends since childhood. More than their loyalty to a player, watching games together is now their way of reliving the nostalgia of the days when they used to play together.

Building a fan base from scratch isn’t easy, but familiar team names and popular cricketers make the job easier. The possibility of being seen on TV adds to the appeal.

Fans during the WPL match between Royal Challengers Bangalore and UP Warriorz at DY Patil Stadium, Navi Mumbai | Photo: @BCCI | Twitter

Maya struggled to keep her daughter Pihu in her seventh row seat. But something had caught the toddler’s attention.

It was Jemimah Rodrigues. The 22-year-old DC player appeared to be the crowd favorite in the stadium packed with RCB supporters. Rodrigues ducked for cover inches from Maya. Pihu freed herself from her mother’s grip and ran down the stairs while her father hurried after her. Then he put her on his shoulder and walked close to the border.

“Jemi… Jemi… Jemi…” the toddler yelled, but her voice died out to the roar of cheers from the audience around her. She failed to get Rodrigues’ attention.

Then Shakti, the Tigress mascot for WPL, entered the east wing and Pihu got distracted.

Ten rows up, Kishore, who had come with his friends, cheered the loudest.

As a restaurant worker, Kishore is a staunch supporter of Delhi Capitals. “Apni Shafali hai na usme [Our Shafali Verma plays for the team],” he said. Seconds later, Shafali was fired by Megan Schutt for a duck.

Koi baat nahi. Jemi hai abhi [It’s all right. Jemimah is yet to bat]’ said Kishore, recovering quickly.

Aside from the fandom, the men in the stadium have a lot to say too – from asking how to catch better to bowling a perfect Yorker.

Ladkiyaan bahut sust haiN [The women are very sluggish]said a man sitting in the VIP box during the Mumbai Indians vs UP Warriorz game on Sunday (March 12) at Brabourne Stadium.

Mumbai Indians supporters during the game against Gujarat Giants at Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai | Photo: @wplt20 | Twitter

Also Read: This Rajasthan Village Girl Watched IPL on TV and Made Her Way to the ‘The Other Side of the Screen’

New narration

Some of the video compilations by Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues and others streaming for free on JioCinema have been viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube.

Different colored (unofficial) jerseys, red and blue caps, yellow and blue colors are sold outside the premises.

The new visual culture also lives outside the stadium and bleeds into the night.

Zaira, who had traveled from Byculla with her four sisters and one brother, sat near Marine Drive on Sunday, well after the Mumbai Indians won their match against UP Warriorz by eight wickets. Her siblings jump onto the six cups of tea and samosas they bought from the tea vendor and do laps the length of the queen’s necklace.

But Zaira had more important things to do first. She opened Instagram on her phone. “You rock,” the 23-year-old wrote along with a dozen heart emojis on a picture of Harmanpreet Kaur, who scored in the match half a century earlier and uploaded as a story.

The rest of the night flew by as the siblings discussed the intricacies of the game and made plans to attend the next games in the league, which ends in Brabourne on March 26.

But throughout the game and after, nobody mentioned the great Indian cricket idols – no Virat Kohli, no Rohit Sharma, no Mohammed Shami. It was the night of Smriti, Harmanpreet and Jemimah.

(Edited by Prashant)


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