WPL opens a whole new world for women's cricket in India

Saika Ishaque is pumped up after claiming two wickets in an over BCCI

UP Warriorz left-arm seamer Anjali Sarvani made her India debut against Australia in December, and was also part of the T20 World Cup squad last month. But it is an interaction with her bowling coach in the Women's Premier League that she feels has made a dramatic improvement in her skills.

"Ash [Ashley Noffke] has given me a solid tip about my bowling action, a little thing which made a huge difference within one game," Sarvani tells ESPNcricinfo. "The WPL is a stepping stone to a new version of me. In the World Cup I didn't get a chance, this is a huge opportunity to learn and get more opportunities with the Indian team as well."

Sarvani's experience is not unique; there have been plenty of similar stories during the inaugural WPL.

Twenty-year-old Shreyanka Patil, an allrounder who bowls offspin, did not have the freedom to set her own fields before she came to Royal Challengers Bangalore. "In domestic cricket, spinners are often told to bowl on one side of the wicket and flight the ball, and because there's no pace the concept of short third or short fine mostly doesn't exist," she said. "I tried to challenge that norm and I got support from my coaches. So when I joined the RCB camp and implemented these learnings at training and in our practice matches, the coaches were happy. [Mike] Hesson sir said I've come prepared."

Jasia Akhtar, the 34-year-old domestic veteran from Kashmir, hasn't played a game for Delhi Capitals yet, but says that sharing a dressing room with Meg Lanning and listening to her perspective on success and failure has been an eye-opening experience.

The performance of the WPL will have tangible measures such as money spent on media rights and franchises, player salaries, television and digital viewership, and in-stadium attendances, but the intangibles - such as the learning experiences of young and unheralded Indian cricketers - are just as valuable.

One of the purposes of the WPL is to provide a platform for domestic cricketers to learn and shine, to be a launchpad for young talent, a finishing school for the more experienced. To build depth for women's cricket in India, a bit like what the Women's Big Bash League did in Australia. And the stories that have emerged from the first season are promising.

Mumbai Indians' Saika Ishaque, the second highest wicket-taker, is one of the finds of the tournament. She's been on the domestic circuit for nearly a decade, striving in obscurity to make the state team for Bengal after an injury setback. At 27, hopes of playing for India would have seemed so distant, but not after bowling with discipline and courage on a global stage, and picking up the wickets of Lanning, Sophie Devine, Alyssa Healy, Tahlia McGrath, Jemimah Rodrigues. 'Bowler hoon, wicket lene aayo hoon', she famously quipped while getting the purple cap. [I'm a bowler. I'm here to take wickets]

Where else could a 20-year-old uncapped Indian cricketer from Punjab listen to one of the greatest to have played the game, get inspired, and help her struggling team end a run of five straight losses? That's what Kanika Ahuja did for RCB after hearing Virat Kohli tell them: "It is not pressure but pleasure to get a chance to play here."

UP's Parshavi Chopra, all of 16, is already an Under-19 World Cup champion, but to make her mark among proven international spinners is arguably a greater achievement. Her dismissal of Ashleigh Gardner, the Player of the Tournament at the 2023 Women's T20 World Cup, is one of the moments of this WPL. And when Sophie Ecclestone, the top ranked bowler in women's T20Is, says Chopra is a game-changer, you know she's one to watch out for.

Simran Shaikh, a 21-year-old from Mumbai playing for UP Warriorz, says she learned new techniques to improve her fielding. "My fielding is something that I have improved upon a lot. I implemented the techniques the coaches said and did things I have not done before," she tells ESPNcricinfo. "The seniors and coaches would teach me how to throw correctly and share tips."

The impact of interacting with elite international players goes beyond technical skills, too. "I've often heard that foreign players have strong mindset but it's only when I came here and interacted with them that I understood just how mentally strong they are," Akhtar says. "They don't panic easily if they are hit for boundaries, they play simple cricket and stick to their strength. We domestic players don't get a lot of chances to play with senior India players also. I am from Kashmir [though she plays for Rajasthan] and very few know cricket there. While I was playing I didn't know how to deal with pressure but that's what we are learning here."

Eight league matches per team in a little over three weeks, several training sessions, and more offline interactions - the WPL has provided an intense learning environment unlike any other for its participants. Now imagine some of the knowledge and work ethic absorbed percolating to domestic teams through players who have been part of the WPL. And the impact this knowledge transfer will have as it builds over seasons.

This is part of the reason that UP coach Jon Lewis, a former England fast bowler, persisted with Indian youngsters in his team. "There are two parts to my job here, one is to win games and the other is to develop young Indian cricketers," he says. "The fact that we are able to put a 16-year-old legspinner [Chopra] and 18-year-old fast bowler [Soppadhandi Yashasri] out should be celebrated. This competition is all about growing young Indian cricketers and giving them an experience."

It's a sentiment shared by Warriorz captain Alyssa Healy and they walked the talk. They stuck with Simran and Kiran Navgire, gave chances to India's Under-19 World Cup winners Shweta Sehrawat and Chopra, as well as Yashasri in the final league game. They may have lost the Eliminator, but the fact that they made the knockouts while giving all these players chances is noteworthy.

Capitals, on the other hand, played just one uncapped Indian in nine matches: Minnu Mani, who comes from the Kurichiya tribe in the Wayanad district of Kerala, got two games. They chose to field the fifth overseas player from an Associate nation - USA's Tara Norris - and finished top of the table. Hopefully the likes of Titas Sadhu, the U-19 pace sensation, Sneha Deepthi, the only Indian mother in the WPL, and Akhtar will get their chances next year.

For RCB, the growth of their young players was a silver lining in a forgettable campaign. They fielded the most uncapped Indians, a consequence of their horrendous start to the season, but one of them - Patil - was so impressive that Sophie Devine said it was a matter of time before she plays for India. At Gujarat Giants, Dayalan Hemalatha finished the season with their second best strike rate, while 24-year-old Harleen Deol was their second-highest run-scorer and in contention for the emerging player of the tournament.

Only the grand final remains, and then the players will go their separate ways, taking with them the wealth - both material and intellectual - earned over these three weeks to further their careers. As the WPL's theme song says: Yeh Toh Bas Shuruat Hai [This is just the beginning.]